December 22, 2017

Preparing for a drier future along the Colorado River

The Colorado River flows beside a hay field near Blythe. (Jay Calderon/The Desert Sun)

Ian James
The Desert Sun

After a 17-year run of mostly dry years, the Colorado River’s flow has decreased significantly below the 20th century average.

Lake Mead, the largest reservoir in the country, now stands just 39 percent full. The level of the reservoir behind Hoover Dam has been hovering a bit above historic lows during the past year, helped by a bigger snowpack last winter and strides in water conservation.

But with scenarios of the reservoir falling to critical lows looking very possible in the coming years, managers of water agencies in California, Arizona and Nevada have signaled their interest in finalizing a deal under which they would take less water from Lake Mead in an attempt to head off severe shortages.

It’s not clear how much longer it might take for officials at water districts in the three states to agree on the details of the proposed Drought Contingency Plan, which they’ve been discussing since 2015. But given the enormous strains on the river, the disconnect between its flow and the amounts diverted, and the growing impacts of climate change, experts say this sort of agreement seems a necessary first step toward preparing for a hotter and drier future in the Southwest.

“It’s great to have the structural deficit taken care of, and that’s frankly what the Drought Contingency Plan does is take care of that,” said Brad Udall, a water and climate scientist at Colorado State University. But if the flow of the river decreases more in the coming years — by say, more than 20 percent, for example — he said those measures won’t go far enough in “dealing with the conflict that will fall out of such declines.”

In March, Udall and fellow climate scientist Jonathan Overpeck published research in which they found that reductions in the river’s flow averaged 19 percent per year between 2000 and 2014. They estimated that somewhere between one-sixth and one-half of that loss in flow was due to higher temperatures — 0.9 degree Celsius, or 1.6 degrees Fahrenheit, above the average over the previous 94 years.

In the study, which was published in the journal Water Resources Research, they described the conditions since 2000 as a “temperature-dominated drought.”

Using climate models to estimate a business-as-usual scenario of greenhouse gas emissions, they also projected that without changes in precipitation, warming will likely cause the Colorado River’s flow to decrease by 35 percent or more this century.

“We have real challenges ahead,” Udall said. “Climate change is here now. It’s real, it’s getting increasingly worse, and the old way of doing business is not going to suffice.”

Managers of water agencies from across the West met this month at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas, near Lake Mead, for the annual meeting of the Colorado River Water Users Association. Officials from the Lower Basin states — Arizona, California and Nevada — all expressed support for having rules in place before a shortage hits.

“To a person, they all noted how important it is that we reach an agreement in the basin,” said Jennifer Pitt, the National Audubon Society's Colorado River project director, who attended the meeting.

In the long-term, Pitt said, it will be important to have policies in place to prepare for longer and more severe droughts.

“What if we had another 20 years like we just had, another 20 years of super-dry conditions? Are we prepared for that?” Pitt said. “I’d say today, we are not prepared.”

But she added that a U.S.-Mexico Colorado River deal signed in September provides a policy that’s “ready to be triggered” to help the situation. Under the accord, dubbed Minute 323, Mexico agreed to cut the amount it takes from the river alongside the U.S. states — as long as the Drought Contingency Plan is in place, and whenever the states end up shouldering reductions under that plan.

The agreement also provides for Mexico to continue storing water in Lake Mead, helping to boost the reservoir’s levels.

More than a year ago, officials representing California, Arizona and Nevada had said they were hopeful they would finalize the Drought Contingency Plan soon. But disagreements flared in Arizona, and California water districts have also had issues to work out.

One potential obstacle apparently was removed in November when California water regulators adopted an agreement that commits the state to following through on plans of building wetlands and controlling dust around the shrinking Salton Sea over the next 10 years.

The Imperial Irrigation District holds the biggest single water entitlement along the Colorado River and supplies water to farms producing crops from alfalfa to Brussels sprouts. The Salton Sea is shrinking under a water transfer deal that is sending water to growing cities in San Diego County and the Coachella Valley.

The Imperial district’s leaders had warned California officials that that they would only take part in the Colorado River deal if there is a credible “roadmap” for dealing with the decline of the Salton Sea. IID officials praised the Salton Sea agreement, indicating that their condition has now been met.

The Colorado River and its tributaries provide water for about 40 million people and more than 5 million acres of farmland from Wyoming to California.

The legal framework that divvies up the Colorado River was established during much wetter times nearly a century ago, starting with the 1922 Colorado River Compact. That and subsequent agreements have handed out more water than what flows in the river in an average year, leading to chronic overuse.

The treaties that originally divided the river among seven states and Mexico allocated 7.5 million acre-feet of water per year for states in the river’s Upper Basin, including Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico; 7.5 million acre-feet for the Lower Basin states of Nevada, Arizona and California; and 1.5 million acre-feet for Mexico.

For decades, so much water has been diverted from dams all along the Colorado that the river seldom meets the sea. The river’s delta in Mexico has become a dusty stretch of desert.

Lake Mead is managed together with Lake Powell, on the border between Arizona and Utah, and the combined amount of water in the two reservoirs has been much smaller since the mid-2000s than in the previous two decades. While the reservoirs’ levels have retreated, heavy pumping of groundwater has also led to declining aquifers in parts of the river basin.

Yet, even as water policymakers have widely agreed that the outlook calls for changes to adapt, there have also been some significant water-saving successes, which have helped somewhat in pushing back potential shortages at Lake Mead.

John Fleck, director of the University of New Mexico’s Water Resources Program, pointed out in a blog post this month that Colorado River use in Arizona, Nevada and California is set to end the year at the lowest level since 1986.

Pitt said a key objective now will be developing approaches for maintaining the reliability of water supplies and avoiding a crash, in which Lake Mead falls so far that it triggers painful cutoffs of water deliveries.

“We have to put some policies in place to prevent those catastrophic outcomes,” Pitt said. An agreement like the proposed Drought Contingency Plan, she said, would be a step in that direction.

“A certain amount of incrementalism seems to be appropriate in this case,” Pitt said, “because dealing with this level of change in hydrologic conditions is something we don’t have a huge history of.”

There are also other challenges, Udall said, including the idea among some water officials in parts of the Upper Basin such as Utah and Colorado that “it’s OK to still go develop additional water resources in the Colorado River Basin.”

Udall pointed to Utah, where water districts are proposing to build a 140-mile pipeline — at a projected cost of between $1.1 billion and $1.8 billion — to carry water from Lake Powell to growing communities in two counties. The pipeline would transport up to 77 million gallons per day, or 86,000 acre-feet per year, to a reservoir near St. George.

“Why would you want to pour gas on the fire and use more, set up a system … that takes another 100,000 acre-feet out of the river and just digs a deeper hole for us to solve?” Udall said. “In law, they are allowed to do that. But it’s like doubling down on a bad bet and it’s just going to make the pain all the more serious if and should we have to deal with large declines in flow.”

The pipeline proposal is undergoing a review by federal regulators. Officials at the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission announced on Dec. 11 that they are starting to carry out an environmental analysis and for the next 60 days will accept comments from the public on the project.

December 12, 2017

Court upholds Obama-era ban on uranium mining near Grand Canyon

The Kanab North uranium mine near the Grand Canyon above Kanab Creek. (Mark Henle/The Republic)

Joshua Bowling

PHOENIX — The U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals on Tuesday upheld a 20-year ban on new uranium mining on public land near the Grand Canyon, while also striking down a challenge to an existing uranium mine south of Grand Canyon National Park.

In its opinion, the court ruled that the ban, imposed in 2012 under former president Obama, lines up with the Constitution and federal environmental laws. However, it ruled that a mine 6 miles south of the national park had a right to operate.

"We upheld the decision of the secretary of the Interior to withdraw, for 20 years, more than 1 million acres of public lands around Grand Canyon National Park from new mining claims," the opinion states. "That withdrawal did not extinguish 'valid existing rights.' "

The ban was put in place by the U.S. Department of the Interior under former secretary Ken Salazar. It came as mining operations were renewing their interest in uranium deposits near the canyon.

A spokeswoman for the Department of the Interior declined to comment Tuesday and said the Department of Justice handles questions on litigation.

A DOJ spokesman declined to comment and did not respond to further questions.

The suit — led by the Havasupai Tribe, Grand Canyon Trust, Center for Biological Diversity and Sierra Club — sought continued protections under the standing mining ban.

"The Havasupai people have been here since time immemorial. This place is who we are,” Havasupai Tribal Chairman Don Watahomigie said in a statement. "This place, these waters and our people deserve protection. The lives of our children and the purity of our waters are not to be gambled with and are not for sale."

In addition to the canyon's symbolic value, supporters of the suit argued it has significant economic value.

Grand Canyon National Park in 2016 contributed about $904 million to local economies and supported nearly 9,800 jobs, according to the National Park Service.

"The Department of the Interior’s decision to protect one of the world’s most enduring landscapes and the sustained health of indigenous communities that live within the watershed of the Grand Canyon was a strong and appropriate one,” said Kevin Dahl, Arizona senior program manager for the National Parks Conservation Association.

About 1 million acres adjacent to the Grand Canyon are protected under the ban, though the continued exception for existing mines came as a disappointment to the plaintiffs in the suit.

"We are disappointed that the court did not uphold the challenge to Canyon Mine, however, and we will continue to do all we can to ensure permanent protection of these lands," Sierra Club Grand Canyon chapter director Sandy Bahr said in a statement Tuesday.

The appeals court's decision comes on the heels of President Trump's decision to drastically shrink two national monuments in Utah — a decision a Navajo Nation attorney called a "slap in the face."

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, has drawn conservationists' ire for his review of national monuments, in particular those established under former presidents Obama and Bill Clinton.

He initially ordered a review of the Grand Canyon-Parashant National Monument, north of the Canyon, an area that sits atop uranium deposits. Ultimately, he left the monument unchanged.

In a statement Tuesday, Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., criticized Zinke for "ongoing actions to hand over public lands to extractive industries instead of ensuring taxpayers get a fair deal."

A history of litigation

The suit is far from the first for the uranium mining ban.

In 2012, the year it was put in place, The Arizona Republic reported that the National Mining Association and the Nuclear Energy Institute challenged the ban's constitutional merits.

Hal Quinn, president and CEO of the mining group, said at the time that the Interior Department "offered no evidence ... that a million-acre land grab is necessary to avoid environmental harm."

Taylor McKinnon, of the Center for Biological Diversity, said in a statement Tuesday that opening exposing the land to uranium mining could do harm to its aquifers.

“Any effort to lift this crucial ban will meet fierce opposition,” his statement read. “There’s every reason to believe uranium mining could permanently damage Grand Canyon’s precious aquifers and springs. That’s an unacceptable risk, and it’s immoral of Congress and Trump to even consider it.”

What's next?

Although the mining ban has worked its way through the legal system, some believe this could be the end of the line.

Roger Clark, Grand Canyon program director for the Grand Canyon Trust, said he doesn't believe the case will end up before the Supreme Court.

"In both cases, the appellate court upheld the district court and there was no discrepancy in their rulings and there’s very little, I’m told by our attorneys, angle for appeal in either case," he said. "I’m not an attorney, so I’ll put that caveat in there."

December 6, 2017

Trump administration hints at changes to California desert's smallest national monument

President Barack Obama used his executive authority under the Antiquities Act to protect this lush expanse of Joshua trees in the Castle Mountains. Obama designated the Castle Mountains National Monument in 2016. (Jay Calderon/The Desert Sun)

Sammy Roth
The Desert Sun

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke isn't recommending any changes to Sand to Snow or Mojave Trails, two national monuments in the California desert that were established by then-President Barack Obama last year.

But Zinke's review of 27 national monuments, which was released to the public on Tuesday, hints at the possibility of allowing hunting in Castle Mountains National Monument, a pocket of California desert tucked between Mojave National Preserve and the Nevada border, where jutting mountains that look like the ramparts of a castle loom over Joshua trees, bighorn sheep, abundant grasses and a gold-mining ghost town.

The desert's bighorn sheep are protected by the Endangered Species Act, so any hunting would be extremely limited. But the Castle Mountains area is also home to mule deer, bobcats, quail, cottontail rabbits and other species sought by hunters.

President Donald Trump ordered Zinke earlier this year to review all monuments larger than 100,000 acres that have been established by presidential decree since 1996. That appeared to exclude Castle Mountains, which was designated by Obama alongside Sand to Snow and Mojave Trails but encompasses just 21,000 acres. But Trump also told Zinke to review any monuments Zinke determined were established "without adequate public outreach and coordination with relevant stakeholders." Rep. Paul Cook, a Republican who represents the High Desert, wrote a letter to Zinke arguing that Castle Mountains was "created without any local outreach or input," and that Obama had created the monument for the sole purpose of preventing the reopening of a gold mine.

In a brief section of Zinke's report labeled "other monuments," the Interior secretary lists just one example of a monument he believes was established without adequate public outreach: Castle Mountains. Zinke said his review process "uncovered inadequate communication with the sportsmen community." According to his report, hunting is prohibited in Castle Mountains because Obama's monument proclamation didn't explicitly say it's allowed, even though hunting is permitted next door in the 1.6-million acre Mojave National Preserve. Both sites are managed by the National Park Service.

Zinke didn't explicitly call for changes to the management of Castle Mountains National Monument. But in the paragraph immediately after his mention of Castle Mountains, he recommended "ongoing review of monuments to ensure that while continuing to protect objects, the proclamations prioritize public access; infrastructure upgrades, repair, and maintenance; traditional use; tribal cultural use; and hunting and fishing rights."

An Interior Department spokesperson didn't respond to an emailed question about whether Zinke intends to recommended changes to Castle Mountains. A spokesperson for Cook, the GOP member of Congress, also didn't respond to a request for comment.

David Lamfrom, director of national wildlife programs for the nonprofit National Parks Conservation Association, rejected the idea that there wasn't adequate public outreach before the Castle Mountains monument designation. Separate pieces of legislation proposed by Cook and Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat, would have added the area to Mojave National Preserve, but those bills were bogged down by the more contentious politics of the proposed Mojave Trails monument. Only after several failed legislative efforts did Obama use the Antiquities Act to make Castle Mountains a national monument, since it could only be added to the national preserve by Congress.

"There's been decades of work of vetting related to Castle Mountains," Lamfrom said.

Still, Lamfrom said he thinks it's "reasonable to have a conversation" about allowing hunting in Castle Mountains, especially considering it's allowed in Mojave National Preserve, which surrounds the monument on three sides. He said Congress could vote to allow hunting, or the National Park Service could initiate a rule-making process.

"That should be locally driven and include local management and local stakeholders. So I think that having that conversation is OK, in terms of that larger management, in terms of consistency of management over these larger landscapes," Lamfrom said. He added that enforcing a prohibition on hunting within the 21,000-acre monument may be difficult, considering it's surrounded by the much larger preserve, where hunting is allowed.

Zinke recommended shrinking six national monuments: Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante in Utah, Cascade-Siskiyou in Oregon and California, Gold Butte in Nevada, and Rose Atoll and Pacific Remote Islands in the Pacific Ocean. Trump got a head start on those recommendations on Monday, traveling to Salt Lake City to sign orders dramatically reducing the size of Bears Ears and Grand-Staircase-Escalante, both of which were hated by the state's all-Republican congressional delegation.

Zinke also advised changes to the way four other monuments are managed: Katahdin Woods and Waters in Maine, Northeast Canyons and Seamounts in the Atlantic Ocean, and Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks and Rio Grande del Norte in New Mexico.

Collectively, the changes envisioned by Zinke could open more of America's public lands and waters to oil and gas drilling, mining, timber harvesting and commercial fishing.

Conservationists, outdoors enthusiasts and recreation companies have slammed Zinke's monuments review as a sham designed to allow private companies to exploit public resources. They've also argued Trump doesn't have the legal authority to make such sweeping changes to monuments designated by his predecessors under the Antiquities Act, although several presidents have reduced the size of such monuments.

More than a dozen environmental groups and Native American tribes have already filed lawsuits challenging Trump's proclamation shrinking Bears Ears and Grand Staircase. The outdoor clothing company Patagonia, which is based in Ventura, California, has also threatened to sue. The company protested Trump's actions Monday by briefly replacing its online homepage with the message, "The president stole your land."

Zinke responded to Patagonia's criticism on Tuesday, telling reporters that it's "shameful and appalling to blatantly lie in order to get money in their coffers." He said any land removed from a national monument would still be owned by the federal government.

"Not one square inch was stolen," Zinke said.

December 4, 2017

Trump shrinks Utah monuments created by Obama, Clinton

Vice President Al Gore applauds after President Bill Clinton signs a bill designating about 1.7 million acres of land in southern Utah's red-rock cliff as the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, at the Grand Canyon National Park, in Arizona In this Sept. 18, 1996. (AP Photo/Doug Mills, File)

By Barnini Chakraborty
Fox News

Capping months of speculation, President Trump on Monday signed a pair of executive orders to significantly shrink two of Utah’s national monuments – Bears Ears and the Grand Staircase-Escalante – that were created by his Democratic predecessors.

The controversial move was pitched by Trump as a win for states' rights and follows an April review conducted by Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke on the boundaries of large national monuments. The review initially looked at more than two dozen sites designated by presidential decree since the 1990s.

“I know you love this land the best and you know how to protect it and you know how to conserve this land for many, many generations to come,” Trump told a group of people at Utah’s Capitol in Salt Lake City. “They don’t know your land. They don’t care for your land like you do.”

Trump’s presidential proclamations cut Bears Ears by 85 percent and Grand Staircase-Escalante in half. The action is also likely to trigger a legal battle that could alter the government’s approach to conservation.

Utah’s congressional and state leaders lobbied the president to reduce the size of the monuments so the state would have more control on what can be done on the land.

Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah praised the announcement and said Trump was giving the people of Utah “a voice in the process.”

Zinke maintained Monday that the move should be seen as correcting an overreach by the federal government.

“We’re not taking one square inch of federal land and transferring it or selling it. It is still federal land, with all the protections of federal land,” Zinke said, adding that the biggest change is that the government is “allowing greater use on the areas that were previously in the monument.”

Opponents, however, see it as the latest example of the government breaking promises to Native American tribes and eroding protections for public land.

In 2016, former President Barack Obama proclaimed Bears Ears a national monument dedicated to Native American culture.

Former Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, who was instrumental in designating Bears Ears monument, tweeted Trump’s actions “will make him the most anti-conservation president in our history. He will be challenged by tribes and thoughtful citizens that recognize that some places are too special to develop.”

About 2,000 people lined up near Utah’s capitol on Monday, holding signs like “Keep your tiny hands off our public lands” and chanting “lock him up!” at Trump.

There were also protests held over the weekend at Utah’s snowy capital.

“I think it’s important to have natural places that are untouched and not modified,” demonstrator Valerie Huitzul told Fox News.

Huitzul was among the 5,000 protesters who showed up over the weekend.

The decision to shrink the state’s sprawling wilderness shrines has prompted fierce backlash by environmental groups as well.

Ahead of Monday’s visit, 146 scientists, researchers and academic organizations from 19 states sent a letter to the Trump administration calling the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument “an important living laboratory” to scientific research.

The Center for Western Priorities described Monday’s event as the largest rollback of protections for lands and wildlife in U.S. history.

Arnold Miller, president of the Paleontological Society and Senior Associate Dean and Professor of Geology at the University of Cincinnati, said the Grand Staircase-Escalante “contains a trove of scientifically-valuable fossils and strata from boundary to boundary, and the excising of portions of this national monument for mining or other commercial activities will tragically compromise its integrity.”

Trump said Monday while leaving the White House that the monument announcement is "something that the state of Utah and others have wanted to be done for many, many years." He said it is "so important for states' rights and so important for the people of Utah."

In December, shortly before leaving office, Obama irritated Utah Republicans by creating the Bears Ears National Monument on land sacred to Native Americans.

Trump signed an executive order in April directing Zinke to review the protections. Trump is able to upend the protections under the 1906 Antiquities Act, which gives the president broad authority to declare federal lands as monuments and restrict their use.

Trump said at the time that he had spoken to state and local leaders "who are gravely concerned about this massive federal land grab. And it's gotten worse and worse and worse, and now we're going to free it up, which is what should have happened in the first place. This should never have happened."

The move marks the first time in a half century that a president has undone these types of land protections. And it could be the first of many changes to come.

Zinke has also recommended that Nevada's Gold Butte and Oregon's Cascade-Siskiyou monuments be reduced in size, though details remain unclear. The former Montana congressman's plan would allow logging at a newly designated monument in Maine and more grazing, hunting and fishing at two sites in New Mexico.

November 16, 2017

Here’s why Cadiz company says it’s taking ‘a little pause’ from its desert water project

A pumping station designed to help Cadiz project researchers understand how quickly water seeps into the earth, migrate to the subterranean lakes. The Cadiz project hopes to pump water that would otherwise evaporate from their unique Mojave Desert site and make it available for municipal use and agriculture. Picture made at the Cadiz project site in the Mojave Desert on Monday, June 1, 2015.

San Bernardino Sun

LOS ANGELES--Fresh from gaining the long-sought federal approval for its massive desert water project, Scott Slater, Cadiz president and CEO, said it’s time for the project to “slow down” a bit.

“We are going to take a little pause…and double our effort to allow people to understand this project,” Slater said. “We believe people should support an innovative project like ours.

The Cadiz project involves pumping billions of gallons of water annually from an underground aquifer in a remote part of the Mojave Desert in San Bernardino County. The water would be piped to parts of Orange County and other locations, which could include San Bernardino County. Cadiz water could serve as many as 400,000 people.

This year, with the Trump administration running the Interior Department and Bureau of Land Management, the Cadiz project gained momentum.

The Obama administration had not supported the desert water project.

One environmentalist who has studied and followed the project for years, said pausing at this point strikes an odd note.

“They have waited years for this clearance, and now, after getting the blessing from the BLM, they take a pause?” said David Lamfrom, California Desert and National Wildlife Programs director with the National Parks Conservation Association.

Lamfrom said he believes the pause is really because the California Lands Commission has recently surfaced as a possible stumbling block to the project.

Cadiz downplays that notion.

“We want to be having conversations with stakeholders and decision makers,” Slater said of the company’s focus for the remaining weeks of the year.

Last month the Lands Commission wrote Cadiz, saying the company needs to fill out an application for a lease permit on a 200-foot-wide by 1-mile long slice of the project’s proposed 43-mile pipeline.

However, Cadiz management does not consider the state’s request to be a significant impediment. Whether the proposed use of railroad right-of-way falls within the state’s permit, issued in June 1910, is something for “an impartial judge” to decide, not the state land commission, the company contends.

Cadiz and Slater, are riding a crest, at least on the federal level. Much has changed in the past two years.

Legal turn-around

In October 2015 the Cadiz project was dealt a major setback when the Obama Administration’s Bureau of Land Management rejected the company’s use of an 1875 railway right-of-way to build a critical pipeline.

In statements, Cadiz has said that the BLM’s October 2015 evaluation “not only impeded the Cadiz Water Project but also set a troubling precedent for thousands of miles of existing uses of railroad rights-of-way in the West.”

Things began to change in September. The project got a huge boost when the Interior Department’s Office of the Solicitor issued an opinion which appeared to allow construction of a 43-mile pipeline from Fenner Valley — about 40 miles northeast of Twentynine Palms — to the Colorado River Aqueduct, where it could deliver water to potential customers.

Nevertheless, the opinion didn’t provide a clear green light.

The definitive victory came in October, when Michael D. Nedd, BLM acting director, cemented the government’s about-face in a letter to Slater.

The letter said the BLM’s October 2015 interpretation of the law no longer represents the agency’s viewpoint and has been rescinded. It also said the scope of the proposed activity does not require BLM authorization.

Groups opposed to the project were outraged.

“This just confirms what the administration has been signaling (since Donald Trump was sworn in as president). They will bend heaven and earth to try to move the Cadiz project forward,” Lamfrom said.

Slater has a different viewpoint:

The action of October 2015 was a “bogus act by the BLM” that took “two years for them to get right.”

Support for the project originated, not from the Trump administration, but a broadly based group of business and political leaders who advocated for what they believe is a good project, Slater said.

Labor groups, including North America’s Building Trades Unions, wrote Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, supporting the project, Slater said.

After receiving the BLM’s favorable ruling, Cadiz said it would turn its attention to final engineering design, contract arrangements with participating agencies and a conveyance agreement with the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California.

Although the engineering plans are proceeding, Cadiz is not immediately applying to the Metropolitan water district for use of pipelines to transport its Mojave Desert water to customers. That will happen early next year, said Courtney Degener, a Cadiz spokeswoman.


Slater said a major misconception he wants to address stems from an allegation that Sen. Dianne Feinstein made in late September. Feinstein, D-Calif., said allowing Cadiz water into the Metropolitan Water District’s system “could endanger the health of not only Cadiz’s customers but all 19 million Californians who rely on that water.”

Feinstein, who has long opposed the Cadiz project, contends the desert water is polluted with arsenic and Chromium-6.

Although Slater did not mention Feinstein by name, he said no company in California or the United States would be allowed to put water into a drinking water supply pipeline that does not meet state and federal standards.

Shortly after Feinstein questioned the safety of using the desert water, Cadiz issued a statement calling Feinstein’s remarks “irresponsible and not true.”

A state agency tasked with protecting California’s water supply seemed to back up the Cadiz company.

“Any water system that wants to bring on a new source of water must have the new source permitted, which would include sampling the new source for water quality before it was put into use,” said Andrew DiLuccia, spokesman for the State Water Resources Control Board.

Ongoing battle

For a time, the project faced a threat by a Feinstein-backed bill in the state Legislature that would have prohibited the Cadiz water transfer unless the state Lands Commission, in consultation with the Department of Fish and Wildlife, finds the project “will not adversely affect the natural or cultural resources, including groundwater resources or habitat, of those federal and state lands.”

But in early September, AB 1000, the bill to block Cadiz, was itself blocked in the state Senate Appropriations Committee.

A short time later, however, the state Lands Commission, asserted that it owned a 200-foot wide by one-mile long parcel along the path Cadiz plans to use for its 43-mile pipeline.

The Lands Commission’s chairman is Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, who along with Gov. Jerry Brown, supported AB1000.

The Lands Commission sent Cadiz an application for it to complete. After Cadiz submits its application, commission staff members will analyze land ownership and the level of environmental documentation to be required before a decision is made, the state agency said in a letter to Cadiz.

The company is questioning the request.

Cadiz will comply with any “lawful condition” imposed by the Lands Commission but does not intend to fill out an application before there can be a discussion about what this state agency is seeking from Cadiz, Slater said.

September 1, 2017

California lawmakers block Mojave water bill, Cadiz surges

Amboy Crater lies 20 miles west of Cadiz in the eastern Mojave Desert in this undated photo. (Courtesy Bureau of Land Management)

Reporting by Noel Randewich

SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - Shares of water resource developer Cadiz Inc (CDZI.O) surged 32 percent in extended trade on Friday after a bill aimed at clogging up its plan to pump water from California’s Mojave Desert failed to make it past a state Senate committee.

In a blow to environmentalists and other opponents of the project, California’s Senate Appropriations Committee held Bill AB 1000, known as the California Desert Protection Act, instead of advancing it.

“I‘m deeply disappointed that the state legislature is actively blocking a bill to prevent Cadiz - one of the Trump administration’s pet projects - from destroying the Mojave Desert,” U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein, a Democrat, said in a statement.

AB 1000 would require additional state government certifications that could stop plans by Cadiz to capture groundwater that it says would otherwise evaporate under 34,000 acres of land it owns in the eastern Mojave Desert.

Aimed at supplying water for 400,000 people, the Cadiz Water Project has already been approved by two California public agencies and withstood court challenges.

“The Cadiz Project will add a new reliable water supply in Southern California and safely and sustainably manage groundwater that is otherwise lost to evaporation,” Cadiz spokeswoman Courtney Degener said in a statement after the committee’s decision.

Under President Donald Trump, the Bureau of Land Management in March undid two Obama-era directives preventing Cadiz from using a federal railroad right-of-way to build a water pipeline.

Cadiz’s stock had lost a fifth of its value earlier in Friday’s session ahead of the Senate committee’s meeting. Its after-the-bell surge following the committee’s decision more than made up for that loss.

California Governor Jerry Brown on Thursday sent a letter to legislative leaders urging them to pass the bill and California Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom sent a similar missive.

Had the Senate Appropriations Committee approved the bill, it would have faced additional legislative hurdles before Brown could sign it.

August 28, 2017

Under Obama, a gold mining firm was fine with a Mojave Desert monument. Under Trump, an about-face

Aren Hall, environmental manager of the open-pit Newcastle mining operation, surveys the eastern Mojave Desert site. (Louis Sahagun / Los Angeles Times)

by Louis Sahagun
Los Angeles Times

Less than a year ago, President Obama’s designation of a new national monument in the eastern Mojave Desert — featuring a row of jagged peaks rising above native grasslands and Joshua trees — was hailed as a compromise that served the goals of conservationists and the mining industry.

The 20,920-acre monument surrounded, but did not include, an open-pit gold mining operation at the southern end of the Castle Mountains. That allowed Newcastle Gold Ltd. of Canada to proceed with plans to excavate 10 million tons of ore from its 8,300-acre parcel through 2025.

“The company appreciates that it has been consulted throughout this process,” Newcastle said at the time. “The new land designation reflects a compromise position that meets our needs as well as respecting the interests of other stakeholders in the area.”

So, conservationists said, they were caught off guard to learn Newcastle’s position shifted after the Trump administration moved to roll back federal protections on many of the monuments created by previous administrations.

Castle Mountains National Monument was not on the list of 27 sites proposed for status modification or elimination. In a plan delivered Thursday to the White House, but not released to the public, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke said he has suggested the president make changes at “a handful” of those monuments.

Yet letters obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request show that Newcastle and Rep. Paul Cook (R-Yucca Valley) have told Zinke the designation was made without adequate public outreach or input from the company.

The firm’s recommended solution: Reduce the size of Castle Mountains National Monument by 50%.

“The company gave its word that the deal we struck nearly a year ago was good,” David Lamfrom, director of California and desert wildlife programs for the National Parks Conservation Assn., said last week. “So we’re … furious to learn that the company and its supporters have been secretly complaining that the process was unjust.”

In an interview, Gerald Panneton, chief executive of Newcastle, confirmed that the company met with Interior Department officials in June to discuss shrinking the monument. He dismissed the company’s initial cheery assessment of Obama’s designation as “words used to calm investors.”

“There were never adequate consultations with us,” said Panneton, who joined the company after the designation was made. “That’s a problem because we need room to explore and grow.”

In an opinion piece published Wednesday in the Desert Dispatch newspaper, Cook accused Obama of creating the Castle Mountains monument under the Antiquities Act “without a public meeting or public comment” as part of a “backroom deal” with conservationists. He also said Trump has specifically asked Zinke to modify the monument.

Alex Hinson, a spokesman for the U.S. Department of the Interior, declined to comment.

The area where the monument is located, about 100 miles south of Las Vegas, has a long history of battles pitting preservationists against mining, grazing and recreational interests.

In the late 1980s, plans to use a controversial gold-mining technology came under attack by environmentalists, who claimed it would dry up a perennial spring and attract wildlife to cyanide-laced water.

In 1994, the mineral-rich portion of land was carved out of the adjacent Mojave National Preserve at the request of Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who recognized the economic value of its gold mining operations. The then-Viceroy Mine produced more than 1 million ounces of gold by the time its main pits — dubbed Leslie Ann, Oro Bell and Jumbo — were shuttered in 2001 due to low gold prices.

Standing one recent day at the edge of a mining pit dug into the mountains, Newcastle environmental manager Aren Hall smiled and said, “Impressive, isn’t it?”

Panneton said Newcastle aims to resume production next year.

“We’re more than happy to sit down with environmental groups and work out our differences,” he said. “For example, the mine could help subsidize the monument and Mojave National Preserve once it’s up and running and making a profit.”

Lamfrom, however, has his doubts.

“The company’s word is not as good as gold,” he said.

August 24, 2017

Review of monuments’ designation justified

Rep. Paul Cook, R-Apple Valley,
represents the High Desert in
the House of Representatives.

By Rep. Paul Cook
Desert Dispatch

As you might recall, former President Obama unilaterally designated two monuments in our area despite significant local opposition, doing so through misuse of the Antiquities Act. The creation of a Mojave Trails monument has been debated for some time, and a local consensus was reached on its boundary. Still, after colluding with special interest groups and performing a single fly-over in an airplane, Obama created a much larger monument and did so without a public meeting or public comment. He created another monument, Castle Mountains, out of thin air by that same abusive process.

You might also have heard attack ads against me and President Trump, implying that we seek to destroy these monuments. (They neglect to mention that I support fully a third monument, Sand to Snow.) If you’re skeptical of their message, you should be. It’s a complete lie on multiple levels. My position on Mojave Trails has never changed: The President should abide by the bipartisan boundaries established in my desert bill and Senator Feinstein’s desert bill. My position on Castle Mountains has never changed: no monument should be created without public input.

Anyone or any entity supporting Obama’s abuse of the Antiquities Act is supporting the dirty closed-door politics that Washington, D.C. has given us for too long. We shouldn’t accept the absurd notion that a single politician should determine the fate of your livelihood, community, and region without your input — that somehow he knows best. Furthermore, opposing Obama’s abuse of the Antiquities Act does not mean opposition to protecting public lands.

I support smart conservation, with monuments created through a thorough public vetting process. That’s why I introduced desert legislation in 2015 (HR 3668) and again in 2017 (HR 857), because we deserve a sensible approach to conservation that includes input from Congress and the public. While drafting these bills, I’ve worked with countless stakeholders — including the aforementioned environmental groups and other environmental groups with better integrity — to ensure that land protections meet the demands of local economies, recreationalists, and conservationists. This resulted in significant support locally.

The county of Inyo and cities of Apple Valley, Banning, Barstow, Big Bear Lake, Hesperia, Twentynine Palms, and Yucca Valley endorsed my proposal because it protected public access to Mojave Trails. I even mailed a survey to tens of thousands of households in my district to see if a monument or a less restrictive designation was preferred for Mojave Trails. A plurality of the 2,500 survey responses supported a less restrictive designation (47% to 44%).

Instead of protecting the 965,000 acres of Mojave Trails as addressed in Feinstein’s legislation and my own, Obama drew a staggering 1.6 million-acre boundary. To make matters worse, Obama created the Castle Mountains National Monument to stop a mining project that environmental extremists have long despised. In fact, the actual Castle Mountains — an interesting topographical feature — could have been protected without drawing the boundary so large as to prevent the mining operation. In both cases, Obama used the Antiquities Act to circumvent public scrutiny.

That’s why President Trump asked Department of the Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to issue recommendations on modifying Mojave Trails and Castle Mountains national monuments. It’s ironic that these extreme environmental groups and their Congressional advocates claim there was a “backroom” deal between Trump and mining companies in determining the fate of these monuments — ironic because a backroom deal occurred between these environmental groups and Obama in creating the monuments. I believe a Freedom of Information Act request would prove my statement true, because some members of these same groups insinuated such collusion in speaking to my staff. Moreover, Zinke’s review allowed for public comment; Obama’s actions did not.

No one side should have free reign in the discussion of public land use, but we haven’t seen a balanced approach in decades. Had Obama and his special-interest supporters chosen good public process in determining these monuments, the Trump administration would not be reviewing their misdeeds. Obama threw 553.5 million acres of public land into national monuments, nearly twice as much as all previous presidents combined. We should never assume one person in government, given that much power, has acted properly in every case. No presidential action is above review.

Burning Man: Giant jellyfish, pulsating heart and rebuilt Boeing 747 set to dazzle at Nevada desert festival

Work by Ken Feldman, Vasily Klyukin and Peter Hazel among installations on display at leading US contemporary arts extravaganza

One of the largest art installations at Burning Man 2017 will be a recreated Boeing 747 which has been moved in giant pieces from the Mojave Air and Space Port.

Oliver Poole
The Independent

The Burning Man festival starts this Sunday and this year’s installations are set to be some of the most outrageous ever with a giant jellyfish, a heart that pulsates in time with the viewer’s heartbeat and a life-size recreation of a Boeing 747 airplane among those to be displayed.

The festival, which draws almost 70,000 people each year to the Nevada desert, distributed £1 million in art grants this year to ensure many new participants will get the chance to join established artists with work on display.

Perhaps the most spectacular, and certainly one of the largest, will be the recreated Boeing 747, which has been moved in giant pieces from the Mojave Air and Space Port.

More than 500 volunteers, including engineers from Boeing and Nasa, have worked since 2015 to not only disassemble the plane, but also add staircases, paintings and other details including day-glo lights to its outsides.

“It started off as a joke when I saw a bike made out of airplane parts at Burning Man and I said, 'Wouldn’t it be great if we made an art form out of a plane?'” said Ken Feldman, the project manager who organised the purchase of the decommissioned 1985 Varig 747.

Another art piece at the festival, now in its 31st year, is the Pulsating Heart by established Russian artist Vasily Klyukin.

For his new interactive installation called the Pulsating Heart, the viewer wears a special bracelet that reads the their pulse. The sculpture then synchronises with the bracelet and starts to light up in time with the heartbeat.

If the bracelet is worn by two people, the sculpture will beat faster and more rapidly.

“I am sure that it will become a notable object at the festival,” Mr Klyukin said, adding that after the festival the work will move to the La Collection Air museum in Lucerne, Switzerland.

The 40-foot high, 60-foot long jellyfish that will also be among the hundreds of art works on display has been created by Nevada artist Peter Hazel. Made out of recycled glass, the work will consist of 1,600 small jellyfish joined together to make the giant's statue.

The event ends every year with the symbolic burning of a wooden man sculpture and of many of the art pieces that had been specially created and displayed on the festival.

August 23, 2017

5 California National Monuments Are Among 27 Up For Axing

Snow on the Providence Mountains can happen a few times every winter, Mojave National Preserve, Mojave Desert of San Bernardino County, California. (COURTESY OF THE NATIONAL PARK SERVICE)

Associated Press

Five California national monument areas may be axed or downsized by the Trump Administration on Thursday. They are among 27 national monuments established or expanded by presidents since 1996 that Trump in an executive order asked Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to review. Here's a quick look at the state's areas that could lose some or all of their protected status.

Mojave Trails National Monument

This huge swath of Mojave Desert north of Joshua Tree National Park is by far the largest of California's six national monuments up for elimination, and also the most recently designated. President Barack Obama gave the status to 1.6 million acres of desert land in February, 2016. it contains ancient lava flows, spectacular sand dunes, ancient Native American trading routes and World War II-era training camps. It also contains the largest remaining undeveloped stretch of historic Route 66.

San Gabriel Mountains National Monument

The 346,000-acre mountain area is some of the nation's most visited wilderness. More than 15 million people live within a 90-minute drive of the mountains northeast of Los Angeles. It was designated by Obama in person in October, 2014 and came in a wave of similar moves by the president, who would use national-monument status to protect millions of acres of public lands around the country in his last years in office. The move brought criticism from California Congressmen and others who said the president was overstepping his authority.

Giant Sequoia National Monument

President Bill Clinton created this national monument in 2000, setting aside 328,000 acres of land in Tulare County where the giant sequoia grows naturally. The move added to the areas already safeguarded in Sequoia, Kings Canyon and Yosemite national parks. The decision was praised by environmentalists but scorned by loggers. In announcing his decision, Clinton marveled at the resilience of a partially charred tree that had been struck by lightning decades ago. "Look how deep the burn goes," he said. "These giant sequoias clearly are the work of the ages. They grow taller than the Statue of Liberty, broader than a bus."

Berryessa Snow Mountain National Monument

This area 50 miles west of Sacramento was given national monument status by Obama just over two years ago. The monument, consisting of 330,000 acres of public lands, extends from Berryessa Peak and other areas in Napa, Yolo, and Solano counties through Lake, Colusa, and Glenn counties to the eastern boundary of the Yuki Wilderness in Mendocino County. It is home to threatened and endangered plant and wildlife species including northern spotted owls.

Carrizo Plain National Monument

Far less visited is this area in San Luis Obispo County, which is known for its remoteness and silence. The national monument created by Clinton in 2001 consists of 204,000 acres of grasslands between San Luis Obispo and Bakersfield. It includes Painted Rock, a horseshoe-shaped sandstone monolith with red ocher etchings of horned figures and geometric shapes drawn by American Indians.

Tommy Hough, president of San Diego County Democrats for Environmental Action, said that if this protected land is removed, other monuments could be targeted.

“The precedent that could be set here is terrible, and it doesn’t just potentially affect Cabrillo National Monument,” Hough said. “These are some of the most special places in the U.S., these have been identified in some cases decades ago, to be preserved as is.”

August 18, 2017

Lawmaker wants to shrink Castle Mountains monument to make more room for a gold mine

Castle Mountains National Monument surrounds the Castle Mountain gold mine which a Canadian company is looking to reopen. (Photo: Jay Calderon/The Desert Sun)

Ian James
The Desert Sun

In May, when the Trump administration announced its list of national monuments that would fall under an unprecedented nationwide review, California’s Castle Mountains National Monument wasn’t among them.

But if Rep. Paul Cook has his way, President Donald Trump will reexamine this newly created monument in the Mojave Desert and carve out more space for a gold mine.

Castle Mountains was the smallest of three monuments that President Barack Obama established last year across the California desert. The 21,000-acre monument includes jagged peaks, Joshua trees and grasslands in the desert between Mojave National Preserve and the Nevada state line.

The monument also surrounds the Castle Mountain gold mine, which the Canadian company NewCastle Gold is looking to reopen more than a decade after it was shut down due to low gold prices.

The company has recently urged the Trump administration to reduce the size of the monument to free up more land around the mine – and Cook seconded that request in a June 8 letter to Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke.

“Although this is the smallest of the four monuments in my district, it is also the most problematic,” Cook said in the letter. “This monument was created without any local outreach or input. It was designated for one purpose: to prevent the reopening of the Castle Mountain Mine.”

Obama’s decision to designate new monuments using his authority under the 1906 Antiquities Act has drawn criticism from Cook and other Republicans. By the time he left office, Obama had created or expanded 34 monuments, more than any other president.

Trump launched the review of national monuments in April, accusing Obama of an "egregious abuse use of power."

In his executive order, Trump instructed Zinke to review any national monument of at least 100,000 acres created since 1996. The order included a loophole allowing for smaller monuments in cases where Zinke determines that a designation “was made without adequate public outreach and coordination with relevant stakeholders.”

But when the Trump administration came out with its list of 27 land and marine monuments that would be reexamined, Castle Mountains appeared to be off the hook. The only monument on the list below the 100,000-acre threshold was Katahdin Woods and Waters in Maine.

Zinke is due to announce his recommendations by Aug. 24 for six national monuments in California, including Mojave Trails, Giant Sequoia, Carrizo Plain, San Gabriel Mountains and Berryessa Snow Mountain. He announced this week that the administration won’t shrink or eliminate Sand to Snow National Monument.

It’s not clear whether or how Zinke might take up Cook’s suggestion to include Castle Mountains in the review.

In his letter, Cook pointed out that when Mojave National Preserve was created in 1994 under legislation introduced by Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the Castle Mountains area was excluded to allow mining to continue.

He said there were later proposals in Congress to add parts of the area that weren’t needed for mining to the Mojave National Preserve, but never to establish Castle Mountains as its own monument. Cook said the first time the proposal was announced came just months before Obama designated the monument.

Cook said “there was no real public outreach or coordination” in that process. A single public meeting was held on the proposal in October 2015, he said, and it occurred outside San Bernardino County, more than 200 miles away from the Castle Mountains.

Cook told Zinke that even though the national monument is smaller than 100,000 acres, it’s “worthy of the utmost scrutiny by your department.”

Cook’s suggestions came to light this month after The Wilderness Society, a nonprofit conservation group, obtained his letter through a request under the Freedom of Information Act.

With his letter, Cook included a map showing his proposed changes to the monument, which would open up more areas around the mine. He also included letters to Zinke from NewCastle Gold and San Bernardino County.

Robert Lovingood, chair of the San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors, said in his letter to Zinke that if he decides to review Castle Mountains, the county wants to see the government address “issues of access through the monument to the mine and access to water needed to service the mine” and accommodate future expansion.

Kerry Shapiro, a lawyer representing NewCastle Gold, requested in a June 1 letter to Zinke that the national monument be reduced by roughly 50 percent and that the government amend a proclamation to allow the company “the flexibility it needs to explore for and develop new mining claims, water resources” and other facilities.

The company said in the letter that Castle Mountains is much larger than it needs to be to protect wildlife, habitats and natural springs, and that the national monument “could be cut in half and still protect those resources most deserving of long-term conservation.”

If the monument remains unchanged, the company said that would “constrain or end” the mining project.

The company's concerns contrast with the stance it took publicly when the monument was created in February 2016. At the time, NewCastle Gold said in a press release that the company was pleased its claim and private lands weren’t affected, that some adjacent federal lands weren’t included and that Obama’s proclamation said its existing rights would be maintained.

David Adamson, who was then NewCastle’s CEO, said in the statement that the federal land not included in the monument “extends well beyond our resource limits and claim boundaries and includes ample land for potential project development.”

Adamson also said NewCastle appreciated “that it has been consulted throughout this process and that the new land designation reflects a compromise position that meets our needs as well as respecting the interests of other stakeholders and the public in the area.”

Adamson left the company last year. The current president and CEO is Gerald Panneton, who has said that the company is looking to get the mine operating again soon and that he sees great potential for the operation to get bigger.

NewCastle said in a statement this month that it drilled a second well as part of a study to identify additional water sources. The company said the well was drilled to a depth of nearly 1,600 feet and reached the water table 570 feet underground. NewCastle said it also has three other wells at the site.

In addition to suggesting that Trump shrink Castle Mountains, Cook has also called for redrawing the boundaries of Mojave Trails National Monument to remove a vast southern portion that connects the monument to Joshua Tree National Park.

Conservation groups criticized Cook’s efforts to eliminate parts of the monuments.

Danielle Segura, executive director of the Mojave Desert Land Trust, said the proposed changes to Castle Mountains and Mojave Trails are “a direct affront to the will of our community.” She said in a statement that Cook’s recommendations “are not in the best interest of the diverse desert communities who have fought for, and benefit from, these public lands.”

David Lamfrom, director of the National Parks Conservation Association’s California desert program, said he was taken aback by Cook’s requests.

“To ask for Castle Mountains to be put under review is really surprising because an agreement was hammered out,” Lamfrom said. “The public has weighed in and said they want these places to be protected.”

Segura and Lamfrom wrote to Zinke last month arguing there’s no need to put Castle Mountains under review. They said the national monument doesn’t inhibit current or future mining, and doesn’t put jobs or government revenues in jeopardy.

Segura and Lamfrom signed the letter together with representatives of two other groups – the California Wilderness Coalition and the Center for Biological Diversity. They said the monument’s creation wasn’t a last-minute deal but rather a “diligent effort spanning several years” and involving the company.

“Throughout this process, especially leading up to the monument designation, NewCastle Gold was engaged, consulted and apprised,” they said in the letter.

Obama established the national monuments in the California desert after separate monument bills introduced by Feinstein and Cook failed in Congress.

Lamfrom said he knows Cook is someone who cares about public lands, but “that letter really seems to be taking actions that side with furthering the interests of industrial projects and threats to the California desert.”

Cook was unavailable for an interview and responded to questions from The Desert Sun by email. He said NewCastle Gold has made clear its opposition to the monument’s current boundaries.

“The primary concern of the mine operators is that the Castle Mountains National Monument eliminates the buffer zone that was purposely created between the project area and the Mojave National Preserve in Sen. Feinstein’s 1994 Desert Protection Act,” Cook said. “Any inability to access the buffer zone for ancillary facilities and future operational expansion would render the project unviable.”

Cook said when the mine is fully operating, it’s expected to generate more than 200 jobs and over $7 million in revenue for the county and state – which the county sorely needs to pay for the work of restoring lands that have been mined across the desert.

His complaints about the monument go beyond his concerns about the mine needing more space.

When the monument was created, land that previously fell under the Bureau of Land Management’s jurisdiction was handed over to the National Park Service to manage.

The new national monument immediately banned hunting, Cook said in his letter, despite the fact that hunting – for animals such as bobcats and mule deer – is allowed nearby in the Mojave National Preserve and had been permitted in the Castle Mountain area before the monument was created.

He asked Zinke to assign the monument’s lands back to the Bureau of Land Management and to allow hunting again.

Cook opposed Obama’s designation of the monument from the beginning. He said the monument never appeared in any legislation and “directly violates the legislative intent” of the 1994 law, which established the zone around the mine.

“We can discuss whether portions of the buffer zone should be incorporated into the Mojave National Preserve, but that discussion must be facilitated through legislation and public outreach, not behind closed doors, such as it did during the Obama administration,” Cook said.

Cook said he’s convinced that Castle Mountains, even though it’s smaller than the 100,000-acre threshold, fits with Trump’s order to reevaluate monuments that were created “without adequate public outreach and coordination” with stakeholders.

“It clearly qualifies for review,” Cook said.

Zinke and Trump could say any day now whether they agree with him.

August 16, 2017

One California desert national monument is safe — but another is still in jeopardy

Sand to Snow National Monument includes the Devil's Playground area just west of Highway 62, which is populated by many species of cacti. (Photo: Jay Calderon/The Desert Sun)

Sammy Roth
The Desert Sun

The Trump administration won't shrink or eliminate Sand to Snow National Monument near Palm Springs, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke said Wednesday — but elsewhere in the California desert, Mojave Trails National Monument may still be on the chopping block.

Zinke has been reviewing 22 national monuments created or expanded by presidents Barack Obama and Bill Clinton, with plans to submit final recommendations to President Donald Trump by next week. Sand to Snow is the sixth monument for which Zinke has said he'll recommend no changes, following Canyons of the Ancients in Colorado, Craters of the Moon in Idaho, Grand Canyon-Parashant in Arizona, Hanford Reach in Washington and Upper Missouri River Banks in Zinke's home state of Montana.

"The land of Sand to Snow National Monument is some of the most diverse terrain in the West, and the monument is home to incredible geographic, biologic and archaeological history of our nation," Zinke said in a statement.

President Obama created Sand to Snow National Monument using his authority under the Antiquities Act in early 2016, protecting 154,000 acres that stretch from the desert floor near Palm Springs to the peak of Mount San Gorgonio. The monument helps link San Bernardino National Forest, the San Jacinto Mountains and Joshua Tree National Park, connecting a diverse array of ecosystems and protecting a wildlife corridor traversed by mountain lions, bighorn sheep and desert tortoises, among other species.

Obama designated two other monuments in the California desert at the same time as Sand to Snow: the 1.6-million-acre Mojave Trails monument, which surrounds historic Route 66 between Mojave National Preserve and Joshua Tree National Park, and Castle Mountains National Monument, which fills in a 21,000-acre gap in the preserve.

Obama established the three monuments to protect those places from mining, solar and wind farms and others forms of development, after legislative efforts in Congress failed.

Monument bills introduced by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a Democrat, never reached a vote. Neither did legislation written by GOP Rep. Paul Cook, which would have created the Sand to Snow monument and offered a lesser level of protection to Mojave Trails.

Both monuments were swept up by Trump's April 2017 executive order, which called for Zinke to make recommendations to Trump on 22 land-based monuments by August 24. But Sand to Snow has been relatively non-controversial, even among opponents of Obama's designation. In a letter to Zinke last month, 17 House Republicans — including Cook, who represents the High Desert — recommended no changes to Sand to Snow.

High Desert residents cheered Zinke's decision not to alter the national monument.

Real estate agent Karen Lowe, who serves as secretary of the Morongo Valley Chamber of Commerce, said local businesses and residents spent nearly a decade lobbying for Sand to Snow, which encircles Morongo Valley. Local leaders expect the monument to boost tourism as the National Park Service adds infrastructure and promotes the site.

"When we finally got the monument, we were so excited. And now to find out that it's going to remain unchanged — it's just great news for Morongo Valley," Lowe said.

April Sall lives in the tiny High Desert community of Pioneertown and is a member of the board of directors of the Wildlands Conservancy, a conservation group. She called Zinke's decision not to reduce Sand to Snow National Monument a "good start," but said Sand to Snow and Mojave Trails didn't need to be reviewed in the first place.

"Both the desert monuments were very strongly vetted, and we had a real groundswell of support. And it was a grassroots campaign that really started with the community members wanting to protect that landscape from industrial energy development," Sall said. "People were stoked that their voice mattered and they got to protect this place, so the fact that it went under review, with no justified reason...was a bit of a dark shadow."

Mojave Trails National Monument may have a different fate.

The 17 House Republicans who wrote to Zinke, including Cook and two other Californians, urged him to shrink Mojave Trails. In their letter, they said Obama's Mojave Trails designation could prevent future expansion of some mining operations, although they acknowledged it doesn't affect existing mining rights within the monument.

Mojave Trails supporters are worried changes to the monument's boundaries could clear the way for Cadiz Inc.'s controversial plan to pump groundwater from a Mojave Desert aquifer and sell it to Southern California cities. Cadiz's land is surrounded by the monument. Conservation groups say the project would remove more groundwater from the underground aquifer than nature puts back in, harming plants and animals in the monument and in nearby Mojave National Preserve — a claim the company disputes.

It's not clear Trump has the legal authority to eliminate monuments established by previous presidents, but several presidents have reduced the size of monuments. In their letter to Zinke, the 17 congressional Republicans called for Trump to eliminate nine monuments and shrink 14 others, arguing that previous presidents have overstepped their authority by using the 1906 Antiquities Act to protect huge swaths of federal land.

"No one person should be able to unilaterally lock up millions of acres of public land from multiple-use with the stroke of a pen. Local stakeholders deserve to have a voice on public land-use decisions that impact their livelihoods," they wrote to Zinke.

Critics, though, say Trump's monument review is designed to benefit oil and gas, mining, timber and other industries that hope to extract more resources from public lands. If Trump tries to revoke any monument protections, conservation groups are likely to sue.

Responding to Zinke's announcement Wednesday that he won't recommend changes to Sand to Snow, Aaron Weiss — a spokesperson for the Center for Western Priorities, a Denver-based conservation advocacy group — said Zinke's latest decision "makes it clear he is not using any legitimate criteria to evaluate our national monuments."

"This charade has gone on long enough," Weiss said in a statement. "The secretary himself admits Sand to Snow is 'home to [the] incredible geographic, biologic, and archaeological history of our nation,' which is true of every single monument he's threatening. Ryan Zinke needs to stop playing reality show games with our public lands."

July 31, 2017

Zinke caps review of Nevada monuments with Bunkerville visit

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke talks to the media on July 30, 2017 while visiting Southern Nevada.

By Keith Rogers
Las Vegas Review-Journal

BUNKERVILLE — Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke spoke to reporters early Sunday evening in this rural Clark County community as he wrapped up a much-anticipated visit to Southern Nevada that included a hike at Gold Butte National Monument and stops in Basin and Range National Monument to see American Indian rock art.

“As a steward of our greatest treasures, it’s good to get out,” Zinke said as he stood in the sun against a backdrop of the Gold Butte range. “As a former Navy SEAL, I think it’s important to go out on the front line and actually meet people because the view from the Potomac is a lot different than the Virgin River.”

The interior secretary visited the monuments as part of President Donald Trump’s executive order mandating a review of 22 national monuments and five marine national monuments created by presidential decree since Jan. 1, 1996, to determine whether the designations should be scaled back or eliminated.

“What I’ve learned in the monument review is every monument is unique,” said Zinke, who wore a cowboy hat as he answered reporters’ questions.

“In a lot of cases people are afraid public land is going to be sold so they feel like a monument is a tool to make sure that public land stays in public hands,” he said, adding, “Out front, I am an advocate to never sell or transfer public land. So is the president.”

Zinke is expected to present Trump with his final recommendations by the end of August.

Speaking outside Brian Haviland’s residence near Gold Butte, Zinke offered insight into criteria for downsizing.

“Again, the definition (of a national monument) is fairly loose so we’re going through and evaluating,” he said. “What’s the object? Is the protection in the smallest area compatible with protection of that object?”

And, he said, “If we’re going to protect those objects that the monument is intended to do, then you have to have things like a bathroom there so people hiking up a trail can use the restroom before they look at the petroglyphs or dwellings.”

Based on his tours Sunday, he said Nevada’s monuments need better road maintenance so public access is not interrupted.

“The good thing is, I haven’t met anybody on either side that doesn’t love the land,” and they agree it’s worth protecting, he said. “So there’s more in common on the monuments than there are opposites.”

Before Zinke’s arrival, Russ Graves voiced concern about the size of the Gold Butte monument.

“I’d just like to see the size reduced,” said Graves. 73, who owns an orchard that is part of a 220-acre ranch.

Whitney Pocket, the Devil’s Throat sinkhole and a few other locations on Gold Butte should be part of the monument, but other parts don’t have antiquities value, he said.

Zinke had planned to stay in Mesquite through Monday to meet with U.S. Rep. Dina Titus, D-Nev., and stakeholders there and in Overton on the last leg of a swing through the West. But he canceled those plans to return to Washington, D.C., for the first Cabinet meeting with new White House Chief of Staff John Kelly.

While the Monday meeting was scuttled, Zinke did meet with some stakeholders Sunday and has scheduled phone meetings with others, including the Moapa Band of Paiute Indians, according to his staff.

The Riverside Road location where Zinke spoke is within three miles of the April 2014 armed standoff on the Virgin River between federal agents from his department and militia supporters of defiant rancher Cliven Bundy — the subject of a high-visibility trial in federal court in Las Vegas.

Asked by the Las Vegas Review-Journal if the Interior Department plans to round up Bundy’s stray cattle from the Gold Butte monument, Zinke said: “I’m not going to address that issue.”

Regarding ranching on public land, he said, “As we look at the rancher, that’s as much a part of the culture of a lot of these monuments as some of the objects.”

Feeling forgotten

Bundy’s wife, Carol, said she was disappointed Zinke didn’t meet with her on his way to Gold Butte despite her efforts to reach him through emails, certified letters and phone calls to staff.

“We have not received one phone call back,” she said, sitting in the living room of the Bundy ranch house Sunday. “We feel like we’re forgotten. Yet my husband and four of our sons, a total of 19 men, sit in prison under the guise of charges of the Department of Interior, which Mr. Zinke is in control over, and they have committed no crime.

“Why would you come to my front yard and not reach out to my family and hear our pleas so that I could hear his as well?” she said.

Zinke said he’s trying to change the image of Interior Department agencies with heavy-handed law enforcement officers.
“We should be the happy department,” he said.

“When you see a BLM truck you should think land manager and not law enforcement, which we work with through our local sheriffs.”

Zinke’s visit to Nevada started early. After his flight landed in Las Vegas at about 7:30 a.m., Zinke flew by helicopter to Gold Butte’s Whitney Pocket, where he hiked with several local officials.

Other stops included White River Narrows, a Basin and Range petroglyph site; artist Michael Heiser’s “City” project where he met with Los Angeles County Museum of Art staff members; and the Mount Irish petroglyph site in Basin and Range, where he met with Friends of Gold Butte.

Earlier Sunday, U.S. Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, D-Nev., released a video of her support for the national monuments.

“Our outdoor recreation in Nevada is a boon to our economy, 148,000 jobs, billions of dollars in revenue to the economy,” she said in the video. “And that’s worth fighting for.”

About the monuments

In his proclamation designating Gold Butte National Monument, President Barack Obama called the region “a landscape of contrast and transition, where dramatically chiseled red sandstone, twisting canyons, and tree-clad mountains punctuate flat stretches of the Mojave Desert.”

Gold Butte encompasses nearly 300,000 and was created Dec. 28, 2016.

Basin and Range National Monument was designated in July 2015 and covers 704,000 acres in Lincoln and Nye counties.

Obama’s proclamation said, “The vast, rugged landscape redefines our notions of distance and space and brings into sharp focus the will and resolve of the people who have lived here. The unbroken expanse is an invaluable treasure for our Nation and will continue to serve as an irreplaceable resource for archaeologists, historians, and ecologists for generations to come.”

July 29, 2017

High court calls road claim 'completely nonsensical'

RS2477 • Utah Supreme Court finds state road claims have not run out of time, allowing litigation to proceed.

By Brian Maffly
The Salt Lake Tribune

In a pivotal ruling for Utah's legal battle to control thousands of routes crossing federal land, a divided Utah Supreme Court has held that these road claims have not run out of time under an obscure state law.

Joined by the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, federal lawyers had argued the statute in question barred "quiet-title" claims after seven years, meaning that Utah's claim to more than 12,000 routes covering 35,000 miles would have been extinguished as long ago as 1983.

Chief Justice Matthew Durrant wrote that such a result would be "absurd" and deviate from whatever lawmakers intended when they passed the relevant law, known as a statute of repose.

The United States' arguments "would effectively deprive the State of its" claims to thousands of routes — including some that may have existed and been used for decades, Durrant wrote in the ruling handed down Thursday.

The high court called such a result "completely nonsensical" and "so overwhelmingly absurd that no rational legislator could ever be deemed to have supported" it.

Durrant was joined by Justices Christine Durham and Deno Himonas.

A ruling the other way, in favor of the federal government's stance, could potentially have put an end to the litigation involving 22 separate lawsuits, one for each Utah county seeking title to these routes within their borders.

Utah Attorney General Sean D. Reyes applauded the ruling, calling it a "common-sense decision" that re-invigorates the road claims asserted under RS2477, a now-repealed frontier-era statute that gave counties rights of way to roads they cut across the public domain in an effort to encourage development in remote areas of the West.

Some of these disputed roads are important thoroughfares, but environmentalists say many are obscure tracks that serve no purpose other than to justify counties' efforts to push roads and motorize access into lands proposed for wilderness.

"The Court correctly recognized the absurdity of the federal government's arguments, which have now added two years of delay and taxpayer expense to the State's efforts to obtain the title to roads that federal law has long promised," Reyes said. "I hope the Court's decision convinces the United States now to work collaboratively and quickly with Utah and its Counties to resolve these title claims."

But the court's dissenters rejected the idea that the federal government's interpretation would have produced an absurd result, or even an uncommon one.

Appellate judges Frederic Voros and Kate Toomey sat in for Justices John Pearce and Thomas Lee, who had recused themselves from the case. While concurring with much of the majority opinion, Voros's dissent called it "the most expansive application of the absurdity doctrine in American law."

Voros noted that the allegedly absurd result actually reflects prevailing law nationwide from the passage of the Mining Act in 1866 until the passage of the Quiet Title Act in 1972.

"If that rule of law in fact mandated absurd results, surely in 106 years some court somewhere would have noticed," Voros wrote. "Yet no party cites, nor am I able to discover, any court questioning the rationality of the rule of law that we today declare absurd."

Thursday's ruling allows lawyers to get back to the arduous task of litigating the validity of the state's road claims that have been stewing in U.S. District Court since 2011. The state must demonstrate each road was open to public travel for 10 continuous years prior to 1976 — when the Federal Land Management and Policy Act was passed, repealing RS2477.

July 14, 2017

Rescind new monuments

Letters to the Editor

By Jim Bagley, Twentynine Palms
Hi-Desert Star

If I had told you 40 years ago that Joshua Tree National Monument would start charging fees to let you in, it would cost you $25 just to visit, and if you had an annual pass the Park Service would demand you show a valid photo ID to use it like some totalitarian country demanding “papers” from you to enter, you would’ve said that’s an outrageous concept. But in 2017 that is exactly the reality of where we are.

Most of the monument has been converted into wilderness, numerous roads open during my lifetime have all been closed, every road now has a lockable gate and any new lands that have added to the now “park” don’t include any new campgrounds or facilities, it just added more closed areas made inaccessible to historic, sensible public access.

Now we have the Mojave Trails National Monument and all the other political monuments across America that President Obama rushed to create before his administration was out of office. How is implementing a one-sided mandate without open participation and bipartisan consensus reflecting the fairness of the American character Mr. Obama so copiously lectured us about? The zealous environmentalist who called upon Obama to use his power to cut to the public out of any longterm management policies cheered him on and boisterously celebrated having their own way.

President Trump is now taking the initiative to include everybody in the discussion about our public lands by asking for a review and direct public input on all recent large-scale Antiquities Act orders. What a revolutionary concept, actually asking for public input instead dictating one party vision with executive action.

The same people who fought to cut the public out of the discussion and off the public lands are crying foul and organizing protests against the review. Wow, how shocking the elitists are self-righteously offended that other people (undoubtedly the deplorables) with another point of view should be heard.

The Secretary of the Interior should recommend these politically created monuments be rescinded in the interest of the highest and best use of our American public lands. We should have an inclusive honest, open discussion about the best long-range management for the Mojave Desert. Let’s include a re-examination of the political wilderness areas that were closed under the fervent parochial effort in 1994 of the California Desert Protection Act. If recreation as an economic goal is a part of the monument strategy, we should restore reasonable access to closed historic roads and campsites for tourism and let the locals enjoy these special places again.

Let’s start with absolute transparency. The folks who created the maps for the Obama monuments excluding the public should clearly identify themselves. Take ownership of your agenda and disclose to the public exactly who had influence in Obama administration. I want to have a say in what happens too! Obama did not ask for public participation.

If making “monuments for everyone” is truly the goal, then everyone should be included cooperatively in the formation of public lands policy. President Obama’s misuse of the Antiquities Act to exclude the public from an open, transparent process to make decisions on the American landscape is offensive. If there is legitimate widespread support for the monuments, why not the let the public democratic process work and send any new land use designations to Congress and get bipartisan consensus?

I have been locked out of too many wonderful places once open to everyone by intolerant, discriminatory, partisan land use policies. In the future I do not want to be forced to pay a government fee to visit Amboy, just because it is in one of Obama’s monuments.

July 13, 2017

L.A. took their water and land a century ago. Now the Owens Valley is fighting back

The Los Angeles Aqueduct, which transports water from the Owens Valley to Los Angeles, was built in the early 1900s. (Los Angeles Times)

By Louis Sahagun
Los Angeles Times

BISHOP, CALIF. -- A century ago, agents from Los Angeles converged on the Owens Valley on a secret mission.

They figured out who owned water rights in the lush valley and began quietly purchasing land, posing as ranchers and farmers.

Soon, residents of the Eastern Sierra realized much of the water rights were now owned by Los Angeles interests. L.A. proceeded to drain the valley, taking the water via a great aqueduct to fuel the metropolis’ explosive growth.

This scheme became an essential piece of California history and the subject of the classic 1974 film “Chinatown.” In the Owens Valley, it is still known as the original sin that sparked decades of hatred for Los Angeles as the valley dried up and ranchers and farmers struggled to make a living.

But now, the Owens Valley is trying to rectify this dark moment in its history.

Officials have launched eminent domain proceedings in an effort to take property acquired by Los Angeles in the early 1900s.

Owens Valley wants to reclaim its history

It is the first time Inyo County has used eminent domain rules against the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, which owns 25% of the Owens Valley floor, officials said Wednesday.

Unlike previous battles with the DWP that focused on the environmental and economic damage caused by L.A.'s pumping of local water supplies, the county seeks to pay fair market value for property and water rights needed for landfills, parks, commerce and ranchlands along a 112-mile stretch of Highway 395 east of the Sierra Nevada.

“We’re using a hammer the DWP has never seen before in Owens Valley,” Inyo County Supervisor Rick Pucci said. “Our goal is the future health and safety of our communities.”

The move comes after years of efforts by Los Angeles to make amends for taking the region’s land and water. In 2013, for instance, the city agreed to fast-track measures to control toxic dust storms that have blown across the eastern Sierra Nevada since L.A. opened the aqueduct a century ago that drained Owens Lake.

As a gesture of conciliation, the city a year ago erected a $4.6-million monument of granite and sculpted earth that now rises from a dry bed of Owens Lake. It features a public plaza with curved granite walls inspired by the wing shapes of shorebirds. Sculptures of earth and rock have been made to resemble whitecaps like those that graced the lake’s surface before it was transformed into a noxious dust bowl.

L.A. concerns about giving back land

But in Owens Valley, Angelenos bearing gifts have always elicited skepticism, and occasionally sparked eruptions of violence. The aqueduct was dynamited repeatedly after increased pumping exacerbated a drought during the 1920s that laid waste to local farms and businesses.

Inyo County officials see their effort to take back DWP land as an important step in taking back local control.

That worries DWP officials, who acknowledged they were caught off guard by the action.

“This is brand new. It could be a slippery slope and where it would lead us I don’t know,” Marty Adams, chief operating officer at the agency, said. “The county also wants the water rights on certain properties, which could have a cascading effect. We’re very concerned about that.”

The Inyo County Board of Supervisors directed its staff to study the use of eminent domain after the DWP a year ago proposed a fourfold rent increase of more than $20,000 annually at a landfill in Bishop operated by the county on land it has leased from the DWP for decades, Rick Benson, assistant county administrator, said.

The proposed lease included a clause allowing the DWP to terminate the agreement for any reason with a 180-day notice, he said.

After months of heated negotiations, the county approved the new three-year lease agreement in January because, Benson said: “We had no choice.”

“We’re mandated by the state to provide environmentally sound means of disposal,” he said. “But the cost of abandoning that landfill and building and certifying a new one elsewhere would be astronomical.”

Beyond that, he said, the California Department of Resources, Recycling and Recovery refused to renew an operating permit for the landfill until a new lease was in place on the property.

Valley towns struggling to survive

In March, Inyo County Administrator Kevin Carunchio notified the DWP of the county’s decision to condemn that landfill site and two others in the towns of Independence and Lone Pine. That would set in motion legal proceedings that could lead to its taking ownership from the DWP.

A county appraisal concluded a fair market value for the total 200 acres of $522,000, county officials said. On Monday, the DWP declined that offer, saying it had yet to complete its own appraisals.

Some officials are already raising the possibility of mounting crowd-sourcing campaigns to fund additional acquisitions of DWP land for public benefit.

“The county would obviously like more economic opportunities,” the DWP’s Adams said, “and we support that.”

In the meantime, Owens Valley towns — including Big Pine, Independence, Lone Pine and Olancha — struggle to survive, with most of their developable land and water rights controlled by the DWP.

In 1997, the DWP agreed to relinquish 75 acres in the Owens Valley for residential and commercial uses, and the county amended its General Plan to ensure that land exchanges did not result in a net loss of tax base or revenues. Since then, county officials say, lots on only a fraction of that acreage have changed hands because the DWP has tended to set minimum bids far above market value.

In 2009, a group of Owens Valley residents sent a petition to then-Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and the Los Angeles City Council urging them to force the DWP to compensate for the loss of private land it planned to buy in the region by releasing an equal amount of its own holdings elsewhere. The city never responded, according to activists who helped write the petition.

The DWP has spent more than $1 billion to comply with a 1997 agreement with the Great Basin Unified Air Pollution Control District to combat the powder-fine dust from the dry 110-square-mile Owens Lake bed.

Separately, after decades of political bickering and a bruising court fight, the DWP directed water back into a 62-mile-long stretch of the Lower Owens River that had been left essentially dry after its flows of Sierra snowmelt were diverted to the Los Angeles Aqueduct. But it later balked at removing thick stands of reeds that swiftly choked the renewed river.

The DWP caused an uproar during the drought in 2015 when it gave ranchers 48 hours’ notice of its intention to reduce their irrigation water from the usual 49,000 acre-feet a year to 20,500 acre-feet a year. The agency abandoned the deadline after Inyo County threatened to seek an injunction to stop what it claimed was a violation of long-term water agreements that would devastate the local economy.

Some itching for a fight with L.A.

Farming and ranching generate $20 million a year in rural Inyo County, second only to tourism, officials said.

Jenifer Castaneda, a Lone Pine real estate broker and community activist, had one word to say about the county’s use of eminent domain: “Awesome.”

Castaneda said she only hopes local leaders are ready for a long fight and that they don’t “cave when Los Angeles dangles some kind of big fat carrot in front of their noses."