July 24, 2016

Quail Forever needs volunteers to help restore seven guzzlers

The Stoddard Valley guzzler number A-45, serving the Central Mojave Desert, before it was restored by the High Desert chapter of Quail Forever.

By Jim Matthews

The High Desert Chapter of Quail Forever needs a few good men. Or women.

The volunteer organization has received a grant from the Department of Fish and Wildlife to restore seven important wildlife water sources in the Shadow Mountains-El Mirage area northeast of Adelanto during work projects from November through April.

The seven water systems, or guzzlers, are all in total disrepair and will need total rehabilitation, including new water tanks, complete reconstruction of the water-catching aprons, sealing of those aprons, along with fencing and signage. The seven guzzlers, built in the 1950s, have been nearly completely destroyed by vandalism and time. They have had virtually no maintenance since they were built.

But there’s a cravat for the work to move forward. The club needs to recruit some new volunteers to help with the extensive labor on these projects or they might have to pass on the $19,156 grant for materials and forego the restoration project. So the group is asking for volunteers to sign up now for the projects that will take place this coming fall and winter. The group needs to make sure it has enough volunteers by August so it can begin to order the tanks and other materials it will need for the restoration work.

Anyone willing to spend a day or three working on these wildlife drinkers should contact Dave Smith with Quail Forever to get on the work sign-up sheet. His number is 760-617-3291. You can also attend the club’s next meeting, which will be held beginning 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, Aug. 16, at the Apple Valley Gun Club. Volunteers do not need to be members of Quail Forever.

The Stoddard Valley guzzler number A-45 after it was restored by the High Desert chapter of Quail Forever.

July 22, 2016

Mojave Desert at stake in far-reaching federal energy plan

By Carolyn Lochhead
San Francisco Chronicle

In its final months, the Obama administration is racing to complete a far-reaching environmental initiative that could forever alter one of the wildest places left in California.

A giant energy plan for the Mojave Desert attempts to reconcile two contradictory goals: fast-tracking big solar and wind installations across 10 million acres of public lands to reduce carbon emissions and slow climate change, and preserving the region’s natural beauty and ecological integrity.

Solar and wind developers say they will need broad expanses of public land to build their big installations. But scientists say those large-scale developments will permanently scar the desert landscape, destroy native plants and wildlife, and, to top it off, may not do for the environment what they were intended to do.

More than seven years in the making, the joint state-federal Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan is driven by President Obama’s promise to install 20,000 megawatts of renewable energy on federal land, and by the state’s ambitious new effort to get half of California utilities’ electricity from renewable sources by 2030.

The administration’s goal is to deliver the equivalent of nearly a quarter of California’s current daily electrical generating capacity. That’s enough to provide power to 3.28 million homes, according to solar industry estimates.

The plan attempts to correct mistakes made early in the Obama administration, when the California desert was opened to large-scale solar development by the Bureau of Land Management, the current plan’s chief architect, without taking into account the broader environmental impacts on the desert. Unlike the National Park Service, whose mission is conservation, the bureau encourages multiple use of public lands, including mining, hunting, recreation, logging, grazing, oil and gas drilling, and renewable energy production.

The bureau’s plan is to set aside 388,000 acres, or more than 600 square miles, of public land in the Mojave for renewable energy development and make another 842,000 acres available if needed. In all, nearly 2,000 square miles of desert could be developed.

The plan also sets aside 5 million acres, or 7,812 square miles, for conservation.

Administration officials are expected to sign off on the plan this summer. After that, only litigation or an act of Congress could prevent it from going forward. While the state is a partner in the effort, only federal land will be developed.

The California desert plan is “an environmental story in the United States that hasn’t received the attention that it’s owed,” said Rebecca Hernandez, an earth systems scientist at UC Davis. It “has really gone under the radar.”

Outside its three national parks at Death Valley, Joshua Tree and the Mojave National Preserve, the desert has been long considered a scrub wasteland. For decades it’s been a repository for sprawling military bases, off-road vehicle playgrounds and booming desert cities, divided by three interstate highways. It’s been mined and grazed for a century and a half. And with a solar intensity that rivals the Sahara, the California desert is now seen as a natural place for renewable energy development.

Despite these human incursions, the desert remains one of the most intact ecosystems in the continental United States.

Scientists have come to understand that the desert is a major carbon sink, whose ancient, deeply rooted plants are a slow-motion machine for drawing carbon from the air and burying large stores of it underground in stable form.

They have shown that deeply rooted desert plants suck huge amounts of carbon from the air and bury it in the earth, where it interacts with soil calcium to form the white desert crusts known as caliche. When these soils and plants are disturbed, this natural process of carbon sequestration is disrupted.

In other words, critics say, building big solar and wind plants on undisturbed desert soils to fight climate change could backfire.

“Globally there’s probably about as much carbon bound up in (desert soil) as there is in the atmosphere,” said soil biologist Michael Allen, director of UC Riverside’s Center for Conservation Biology and a pioneer in studying desert carbon sequestration. “It’s a very large pool.”

Opposition to the administration’s plan also comes from the solar industry. In a last-ditch effort to make changes, industry groups warned in a memo this month that the initiative will make it “impossible” to achieve the administration’s climate goals — including those that came out of last year’s landmark Paris climate accord — because it leaves too little public land available for development.

“California is home to the best solar radiance in the world,” said Shannon Eddy, executive director of the Large-Scale Solar Association, and the Bureau of Land Management “is on the threshold of locking it off against development in perpetuity.”

Environmental groups that support the administration’s plan fear the desert will be under significant threat from solar development without the government’s protection of 5 million acres.

Without such protection, said Kim Delfino, California program director for Defenders of Wildlife, “the public lands will yet again be the place a lot of these large projects go.”

The plan was designed to avoid a repeat of actions taken in the Obama administration’s early days, when it handed $50 billion in subsidies to renewable energy developers as part of the economic stimulus that followed the 2008 crash. The initiative set off a desert land rush by those hoping to cash in on the government money and the vast tracts of available public land, which in turn overwhelmed federal agencies, causing them to approve projects without considering their broader environmental impacts.

“The state and the federal permitting agencies were scrambling to do a good job of analyzing projects in the desert on a site-by-site basis, but without the benefit of a broader plan that would help us really begin to see the big picture of how these different projects might together affect the desert environment,” said Karen Douglas, a member of the California Energy Commission who has taken a leading role for the state in the current plan.

One project that environmentalists point to as an epic mistake is BrightSource Energy’s solar-power farm at Ivanpah (San Bernardino County), built to provide power for Pacific Gas and Electric Co. Constructed just north of the Mojave National Preserve on 6 square miles with $1.6 billion in federal loans and $600,000 in tax credits, the plant has fallen short of its production goals.

Construction turned up many more endangered desert tortoises than expected, and thousands of birds have been incinerated in the light beams that reflected off the plant’s nearly 350,000 mirrors to three 45-story-tall towers. The plant has burned so much natural gas that it has needed to buy carbon credits to comply with the state’s greenhouse gas emissions program. BrightSource, an Oakland firm, says the plant has vastly improved its solar power output this year.

With the new plan, the administration is trying to look at entire landscapes when planning for renewable energy. In a speech in April, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said the effort would “determine where it makes sense to develop, where it makes sense to protect the natural resources, and where we can accomplish both.”

Barbara Boyle, head of the Sierra Club’s “Beyond Coal” campaign, called the plan “a really important milestone ... that looks at the big picture of development and conservation.”

“We take a very pragmatic view of this, recognizing that some development is going to happen in this desert, and it’s not going to be possible to stop it all,” Boyle said. “We are pushing as hard we possibly can to put it in the least damaging places and to limit how much is done.”

Three factors are driving the push for large-scale solar and wind development: a law passed by the California Legislature last fall requiring half the energy provided by utilities to come from renewable energy sources within 14 years; the Obama administration’s targeting of public lands for such renewables; and Congress’ decision in December to continue a lucrative solar tax credit.

But common sentiment among local environmental activists, business leaders, county officials and scientists living in the desert is that solar should come from panels on the rooftops of homes and businesses where electricity demand is. Putting solar on rooftops would encourage more small-scale advances in renewable energy production and reduce the need for sprawling desert projects, they say.

“If the state of California was really smart, they would do a Google search and look at all of the parking lots and rooftops in Southern California — the Walmarts, the Targets, the humongous shopping center areas,” said Chuck Bell, head of the pro-business Lucerne Valley Economic Development Association, who joined local environment activists to protest the desert plan.

Hernandez, the UC Davis scientist, worked with Stanford University researchers on a study last year that found that rooftop and other solar systems in developed areas “could meet the state of California’s energy consumptive demand three to five times over.”

“When you have so many other places that are already disturbed, especially across the whole of California, it just doesn’t make sense to destroy any remaining natural habitat we still have left intact,” said Hernandez, whose joint study was published in the journal Nature Climate Change.

But Douglas, the California Energy Commission member, insists the state needs large-scale renewable energy to provide reliable electricity, and the desert so far has been instrumental to building the capacity to do that.

“Rooftop is a really important part of the portfolio,” Douglas said. “It will get more important, and it is getting more important, but we have big goals. Large-scale projects, they also get you scale. They are located in areas with very good resources, and when they come online they can increase our renewable energy generation as part of our statewide portfolio very quickly.”

In its planning, the Bureau of Land Management said rooftops are outside of the agency’s authority and that its orders were to evaluate renewable energy projects only “on federally administered land.” Planners focused solely on the desert.

Rex Parris is the Republican mayor of Lancaster (Los Angeles County) in the western Mojave. His focus on renewable energy has resulted in the placement of solar panels over parking lots, on city buildings, schools and even the city’s baseball stadium. He wants to make Lancaster the first city to require solar panels on all new housing. His aim, he said, is twofold: to battle climate change and save money.

He invited a Chinese company to manufacture electric buses in Lancaster, which, under his leadership, also bought the city’s streetlights from Southern California Edison when the utility refused to switch the bulbs to LED lights. Parris is pushing large-scale solar installations on some of Antelope Valley’s 56 square miles of abandoned alfalfa fields.

There’s no reason to bulldoze desert wilderness, the mayor said. Gesturing to his city of 150,000 people, he said, “We have the land here.”

July 10, 2016

Water for Wildlife restores 13 guzzlers in East Mojave Desert

Water for Wildlife volunteers put the finishing touches on guzzler B226 near Flat Top Mountain in February 2016. The large concrete apron on the right collects rainwater, funneling it downhill into the storage tank on the left. Inside the crescent-shaped opening is a wildlife ramp that allows access the water inside. (Photo: Chris S. Ervin) 
By Jim Matthews
Victorville Daily Press

Cliff McDonald and his group of volunteers at Water for Wildlife announced the results of their efforts this winter and spring. In a nutshell, a total of 13 wildlife water sources (guzzlers) were restored and filled in the eastern part of the Mojave Desert over a total of four work weekends.

The volunteers invested over 1,500 hours of effort into the repairs and spent over $9,000 on materials and tools needed to complete the work, or just over an average of $725 per drinker.

Their efforts assure that a wide variety of desert birds, mammals, and even reptiles will have a permanent water supply this summer and fall, and since most desert species still need open water to survive, these man-made drinkers — often called guzzlers — are the only thing between life and death, especially during our ongoing drought.

These guzzlers all have similar features. First, they have an “apron,” which can be made of a variety of materials, that captures rain waters and funnels it into a storage tank (above or under the ground), and then access to the water is provided by a drinker box or simply an opening in the tank and ramp down to the water. Most of the guzzlers in the Mojave were made in the 1950s and 1960s by the Department of Fish and Wildlife (formerly Fish and Game), with little or no maintenance since then. While many still hold water, most are in various states of disrepair. They either hold no water or hold far less water than they could if functioning at their full potential.

Over the 10 years Water for Wildlife volunteers have been working on guzzlers in the East Mojave, they have now restored 75 guzzlers and five springs, and they repaired a number of water tanks and windmills on old cattle systems that now exclusively serve wildlife. This has involved over 7,500 volunteer hours and $50,000 in private funding.

The payoff is that over 300 species of birds and at least 45 mammal species have been documented using these important water sources, which increasingly serve as mitigation for natural water sources lost to development and ground-water pumping across the Mojave Desert.

So where’s the Sierra Club or the Humane Society in supporting this important work, making sure desert wildlife survives during this drought? Where are all the other conservation and environmental groups when it comes to actually doing things on-the-ground to help wildlife?

I’ll tell you where, they are MIA – missing in action.

They spend all their money on making sure you rejoin, fundraising, lobbists and attorneys. None of them spend a dime on actually doing anything that make a difference for wildlife. In fact, the Sierra Club and Center for Biological Diversity have repeatedly fought against guzzler construction and restoration on the basis that they are “unnatural.” Well, human groundwater pumping and housing developments are “unnatural,” and they have led to the drying up of desert springs and seeps for decades. Guzzlers and other man-made water sources act as mitigation for these other losses. But loony fringe won’t hear of that.
Even the new superintendent of the Mojave National Preserve, Todd Suess, where Water for Wildlife would have directed all of its efforts this year, threw up a bunch of bogus reasons to stop guzzler repairs on the Preserve (even after the previous two superintendents endorsed and supported McDonald’s work). So the guzzler repairs were all done on BLM lands out of the Preserve again this year.

If you care about desert wildlife, know that water is the most critical factor in their survival. The only groups assuring that desert water sources are maintained for wildlife are groups like Water for Wildlife. I give McDonald’s group a lot of publicity because it amazes me how many volunteers come from so far to work so hard for nothing. But the High Desert (Apple Valley) and Ridgecrest Quail Forever chapters (and all the other QF chapters, for that matter) do as much work as McDonald’s volunteers in the west Mojave. The Society for the Conservation of Bighorn Sheep focuses on the bigger “guzzler” projects primarily aimed at helping desert bighorns, and the Southern California Chapter of the California Deer Association works on springs, guzzlers, and other waters all across the southern half of the state. Leon Lessica’s Desert Wildlife Unlimited’s desert water work in the Imperial Valley may be the only reason we have a healthy desert burro deer and bighorn population there.

The one thing you need to know about all of these groups is that they usually can muster up enough volunteer manpower for their projects (although more, younger volunteers are always welcome), but they frequently have to scrape and beg enough money together to get the materials they need for this work. Donations are always appreciated. With other so-call conservation or environmental groups you might get a letter or phone call after you join or donate, but the letter or call is to ask for money. With these groups, the letter or call you receive is just offering heartfelt thanks and perhaps information on where you dollars are going to be spent so you can see the results of your donation.

You can find out more information out Water for Wildlife at the group’s new website at waterforwildlifeemd.com. You can find all the local Quail Forever, Society for the Conservation of Bighorn Sheep, and California Deer Association chapters with searches on the Internet. If you have trouble, you can e-mail me and I can help you out.