March 28, 2017

When the Desert Blooms

Anza Borrego Desert State Park in Southern California (iStock)

James MacDonald

The California desert is awash in color. Following a winter of exceptional rain, desert wildflowers have bloomed en masse, carpeting the normally drab landscape with a riot of bright blues, yellows, and reds. The rare phenomenon has drawn delighted tourists from around the world (some of whom, unprepared for the heat, are passing out). The event is dubbed a “super bloom.”

What causes a super bloom? The short answer is evolution. The desert is a tough environment for a plant. Accordingly, desert plants have evolved a variety of ways to cope with heat and dryness, such as thick succulent leaves which can store water (e.g. cactus) and a special form of photosynthesis where gas exchange occurs at night to prevent water loss (also cactus).

Desert wildflowers are mostly annuals, which grow, live, produce seed, and die over the course of one year. If an annual plant is going to grow, it needs to be certain that it will be able to complete a life cycle and produce seed, or else its ability to pass on its genome—its fitness—is compromised. To make sure that it can find the right conditions for optimal growth, a desert annual seed can lie dormant for years, even decades. There is a compound in the seed coat that inhibits growth. The seed cannot germinate until the seed has been exposed to sufficient rainfall to leach the growth inhibitor out of the seed. Prime conditions for one seed will work for others, so when the right conditions come along lots of plants take advantage at once.

What counts as enough rain to really get those seeds germinating depends on temperature. In hotter deserts, more rain is required since evaporation occurs; under cooler conditions, less precipitation is necessary since evaporation is reduced. Basically, water use by plants is more efficient when it isn’t so hot. Conditions for a “good wildflower year” occur roughly every 5 to 7 years. This time frame corresponds roughly to ENSO (e.g. El Niño) years, when wetter conditions come to California. Exceptionally good years come maybe once a decade.

Since the conditions for a super bloom are local, a boom year in one area may be a dud in another. This year’s bloom is localized in Southern California, and is not connected to ENSO; these conditions are truly exceptional. Following years of punishing drought, dormant seeds were raring to go. At the same time, the tongue of moisture from the Pacific known as the Pineapple Express has caused exceptionally heavy rains and lower temperatures throughout large swaths of California. For a wildflower, the combination is like hitting the lottery. Even a brutal drought has a silver lining.

LADWP scrambling to prepare dusty Owens Valley for possible floods

Overflow from the Owens River creates a mirror pond near Bishop reflecting the snow-capped Sierras. (Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times)

by Louis Sahagun
Los Angeles Times

Lone Pine, Calif. -- As snow continued to fall on the eastern Sierra Nevada on Monday, platoons of earth movers, cranes and utility trucks fanned out across the Owens Valley, scrambling to empty reservoirs and clean out a lattice-work of ditches and pipelines in a frantic effort to protect the key source of Los Angeles’ water.

With snowpack levels at 241% of normal, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti a week ago issued an emergency declaration allowing the Department of Water and Power to take immediate steps to shore up the aqueduct and its $1-billion dust-control project on dry Owens Lake, which L.A. drained to slake its thirst in the last century.

DWP activities have always elicited concern in the Owens Valley, given the history of a water war that began when Los Angeles agents posed as ranchers and farmers to buy land and water rights in the area. Their goal was to build the aqueduct system to meet the needs of the growing metropolis 200 miles to the south.

The stealth used to obtain the region’s land and water rights became grist for books and movies that portrayed the dark underbelly of Los Angeles’ formative years, and inspired deep-seated suspicions about the city’s motives that linger to this day.

Officials insist that the current emergency poses a real threat not just to urban Los Angeles’ residents, but to the ranchers, farmers, outdoor enthusiasts and small-business owners living in the sage-scented high desert gap between the fang-like peaks, some taller than 14,000 feet, of the Sierra Nevada to west and the White and Inyo ranges to the east.

“Conditions of extreme peril” threaten residents and ecosystems, Garcetti said. The 1 million acre-feet of water expected to flow through the century-old aqueduct system this spring and summer could possibly overflow the web of concrete channels, spilling into fields, homes and businesses.

The danger of destructive flooding and the utility’s responses to it are raising tensions between Los Angeles and the Owens Valley towns along a 110-mile stretch of U.S. 395 in a rural region defined by water wars since the early 1900s.

The crews swarming the valley are focused on protecting DWP infrastructure and U.S. 395, the principle route between Southern California and eastern resort areas, leaving some townsfolk fretting they are being overlooked.

The emergency is already taking toll on the tourism industry in a stunning landscape of snow-capped peaks, cascading streams, dormant volcanoes, small towns and sage plains dotted with irrigated pastures — most of them leased from the DWP.

The Bishop Chamber of Commerce & Visitors Bureau, for example, was forced to cancel the 50th annual Blake Jones Trout Derby scheduled for March 11 after the DWP rescinded its permission to hold the event because of dangerously high waters spilling over the banks of the Owens River, just north of town.

“Losing the derby was a $300,000 hit to the local economy,” said Tawni Thompson, director of the chamber. “We’ll never know how many vacationers decided not to come through Bishop because they were scared of dying in a flood.”

“I’m going to declare a state of emergency,” she added, “if our tourism industry goes down the toilet.”

Bernadette Johnson, superintendent of the Manzanar National Historic Site on U.S. 395, has been getting nowhere with requests for additional flood control measures along streams on DWP land just outside the boundaries of the location that was a Japanese American internment camp during World War II.

“We were hit by destructive flooding earlier this year, and in 2013 and 2014,” Johnson said. “But the DWP is saying that when all hell breaks loose they won’t have enough resources and manpower to help us. We have to wonder about their priorities.”

In long legal battles spanning decades, the DWP was eventually forced to give up significant amounts of water to steady water levels in Mono Lake, re-water parts of dry Owens Lake to help prevent dust storms and restore a 62-mile stretch of the Lower Owens River.

Many residents suspect that the DWP plans to use emergency declarations to bypass rules and regulations that have prevented it in the past from constructing paved roads, for example, on Owens Lake, which is owned by the State Lands Commission.

Richard Harasick, head of the DWP’s water system, dismissed that notion: “The department is not using this emergency declaration to take some sort of advantage or build special projects that would otherwise have to go through the normal regulatory process.”

“It is as much to help us manage the anticipated floodwaters as to aid in public safety,” he said. “It allows us to get goods, services and contracts faster, from heavy equipment to riprap needed to shore up banks and channels.”

This week, Inyo, Kern and Mono counties were expected to issue their own emergency declarations, making them eligible for state and federal assistance in the event of flooding.

“My proclamation will ask for critical resources,” Inyo County Administrator Kevin Carunchio said. “In the meantime, I want every DWP facility, ditch, diversion bypass, canal and conveyance structure available and operating as soon as possible.”

The region has a history of destructive floodwaters rushing off the High Sierra.

In August 1989, for example, cloudbursts driven by 60-mph winds gouged out the underpinnings of the aqueduct near Cartago and closed a 63-mile stretch of U.S. 395.

Jon Klusmire, administrator of the Eastern California Museum in Independence, isn’t taking any chances with the little institution located along a usually docile creek.

“I’ve devised a survival strategy for a worst-case scenario,” he said. “I’m going to jam some boards in a nearby DWP diversion gate, then dig a ditch to divert the water away from the museum and into the streets.”

The big question for Kathy Jefferson Bancroft, tribal historic preservation officer for the Lone Pine Paiute-Shoshone Reservation, is this: “How could it be that Los Angeles never developed a plan B in a place where massive snowpack and destructive flooding go with the terrain?”

Standing on a berm overlooking on the plots of vegetation, gravel and shallow flooding the DWP has constructed across 50 square miles of dry lake bed over the past 20 years, Bancroft said, “They’ve reduced dust pollution here by 96% with these projects, and they’re all going to be underwater soon.

“Honestly, I’m looking forward to seeing this lake filled up again, like it is supposed to be,” she said.

That vista will be short-lived. The runoff is expected to evaporate within 12 to 18 months, leaving behind an already existing repair job for dust abatement and system improvements expected to cost up to $500 million, officials said.

The rebuilding effort will be done in cooperation with state and federal regulatory agencies, local authorities and stakeholders, the State Lands Commission, which owns the lake bed, and the Great Basin Unified Air Pollution Control District, which is responsible for protecting the health of Owens Valley residents.

“When we’re done, it’ll be something different than what exists today,” Harasick said. “That’s because we plan to make it more flood-resilient.”

March 24, 2017

Ecologist Steps in to Lead Mojave Desert Research, Education Center

Darren R. Sandquist is the new
Desert Studies Consortium director.

CSUF News Service

For over 25 years, ecologist Darren R. Sandquist, professor of biological science, has taken countless treks to California's arid regions to study plant ecology and teach his students about the rare and threatened plant and animal species, as well as the importance of conservation.

"I love seeing others discover how amazing deserts are," said Sandquist, who studies how desert plants manage to grow, survive and reproduce in an environment with so little water.

Now in his new role as director of the California State University's California Desert Studies Consortium (CDSC), Sandquist is taking steps to advance cross-disciplinary research, education and training to better understand desert ecosystems.

The consortium of seven Southern California CSU campuses operates the Desert Studies Center at Zzyzx, located within the Mojave National Preserve, a federally protected area about 60 miles northeast of Barstow. CSUF serves as the host campus, providing administrative oversight of the desert field station. In its 40th year of operation, the Desert Studies Center attracts more than 2,300 visitors a year, including students, faculty members and other research scientists from across the globe.

Sandquist became consortium director last fall when longtime director William "Bill" Presch, professor emeritus of biological science, stepped down after serving in the post for 24 years.

What is your new role?
The consortium promotes research, education and outreach related to our California deserts. As director, I oversee consortium programs and operations of the center. This includes developing student academic skills and public awareness through instruction, research and special projects and programs — in and out of the classroom.

Why did you want the job?
I applied for the position because I'm a great believer in the consortium's mission and field-based education. Having used the center since I arrived at CSUF in 1999, I believe it is an irreplaceable resource for both education and research, and I want to help increase the visibility and appreciation of both the consortium and center.

What has been the most rewarding so far?
Two things: The passion for the center expressed by our users — ranging from CSUF students who have visited multiple times to first-time visitors from as far away as the United Kingdom. The place can be infectious. What I always look forward to most is being at the center when students are there and seeing them discover and learn, and maybe even get hooked on desert research. We’ve also received tremendous support from practically every level at CSUF, and I really appreciate that commitment.

What is your vision for the center?
I can’t stop thinking of things I’d like to see us accomplish. One of the main emphases right now is to increase our role in desert research. Research meets many important educational objectives, in addition to providing evidence-based information for decision-making and prudent management of desert ecosystems. I also want to provide greater opportunity for underrepresented students in STEM disciplines to both participate in academic field experiences and engage in field research.

I also look forward to building stronger relationships with our partner universities and with the Mojave National Preserve. Collectively, we have a tremendous amount of expertise in desert systems — and the consortium should be instrumental in mobilizing that expertise to help address the current and rising challenges faced by the wild and human residents of these arid environments.

March 5, 2017

BLM stops efforts to restore desert water sources

Jim Matthews
By Jim Matthews
Hesperia Star

Water for Wildlife, a desert conservation organization that restores water sources in the Mojave Desert for wildlife, has been stopped from doing its work for the second time two years. This past week, the Needles office of the Bureau of Land Management refused to allow the group to conduct its March and April projects on guzzlers in the Clark and Kingston mountains region northeast of Baker.

The group was also stopped from restoring guzzlers on the Mojave National Preserve late in 2015, pending a determination from the National Park Service that work could continue. There has been no determination, yet, from the NPS and no word on the progress of the analysis.

The most recent stoppage of this work came Wednesday this past week in a letter from Daniel Vaught, assistant field manager in Needles for the BLM. Vaught wrote that "our archaeologist has recently expressed concerns regarding the cultural and historical resources and impacts involved in the small-game guzzler restoration."

Cliff McDonald, Water for Wildlife coordinator, said he asked for the letter after a meeting recently when he was told the group's work would need to cease until these concerns could be addressed.

In this meeting, McDonald said he asked why these concerns weren't made last year or the year before. The group has been restoring wildlife water sources for 11 years in the region. McDonald said Vaught had no answers, except to say that the current archaeologist, Chris Dalu, has been on the job for five years in Needles and was suddenly now concerned.

McDonald cancelled the March 16-19 project, and the April 6-9 project was tentatively cancelled, pending a another meeting with BLM this coming week.

McDonald said the BLM has not identified any "cultural and historical resources" on any of the sites where they have worked in the past, and that their efforts have all been done on locations that were developed in the 1950 and 60s in joint efforts between the BLM and Department of Fish and Wildlife. These "administrative sites" were disturbed historically, and the restoration efforts do not enlarge the footprint of the site. McDonald doesn't know why they are doing this now.

Safari Club International, already in the midst of a battle with the National Park Service over its refusal to allow guzzler and windmill restorations to continue on the Mojave National Preserve, immediately jumped in to assist in "this important work for wildlife."

In a letter to all members in the Orange County Chapter, Jim Dahl asked its member to write or call Vaught to remind him that for 11 years "Water for Wildlife has restored water drinkers... (and) have made significant investments and have a long history of restoring guzzlers."

Craig Stowers, the deer program coordinator with the state DFW, wrote to McDonald in an unofficial capacity to say, "it's not OK with DFW that this is going on. We have a significant investment there, too, and (have) a long history of working in this field.... It is a disturbing direction for them to go, and I'm at a loss to explain why this is suddenly an issue for them now."

Clark Blanchard, an assistant deputy director with the DFW in Sacramento, said the issue just popped up on the radar, but said — in an official capacity — that "the department is aware of the issue and is diligently working to find solutions in order to allow this work to continue."

Neither the BLM's Vaught nor Dalu were available for comment Friday.

Those are the facts as we know them now.

What we have is two federal land management agencies, adjacent to each other, fighting to stop volunteer wildlife water restoration efforts.

It is ironic for the Needles office of BLM to jump in bed with the National Park Service on this issue. After years of battling with the state DFW, the BLM has a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with the DFW to even allow guzzler restoration in BLM wilderness areas, including the building of new water sources. Restoring existing sites is not even an issue any longer. Or it wasn't. But now we have some low-level bureaucrat suggesting restoring existing desert water sites is going to harm archeological resources? And he's saying this without a shred of data to support his claim.

The National Park's argument for stopping guzzler restoration was equally as specious and completely lacking in data (or even common sense):

In a nutshell, Todd Suess, the new superintendent of the Preserve, listed two reasons why guzzler water restoration was stopped. First, he wrote that guzzlers might be historical sites and we can't restore them until we determine if they are historical sites and then we can decide if they need to be restored or not. (It was that convoluted.) The caveat was that they didn't have anyone who could tell if they were historical sites or not, so we can't do anything. Second, he wrote that all guzzler water restoration had to stop until the Preserve-wide water management plan could be completed and implemented. That is like saying, you can't replace a sign or repair a campground restroom until the Preserve's entire facilities development plan is done. And of course, the water management plan is at least three or four years away from completion.

The "reasons" are both smokescreens to stop work that had been ongoing for nine years in the Preserve and 11 years on BLM land. Where was the concern before the work stoppage? Why are these specious administrative arguments, using obscure rules and regulations, being used now to stop important wildlife field work?

That's the question that needs to be asked.

Here's the answer: It's about hunting. I'm not the first person to point out that it all started when Todd Suess was named the new superintendent of the Mojave National Preserve. I'm sure Suess is a good guy, but it's pretty clear that he doesn't particularly like hunting and hunters. Maybe he's even neutral on hunting. But his friends and staff who don't like hunters know this guzzler and water restoration work is primarily being done by hunter conservationists. And they have his ear. If it's not him, then it's his staff and associates who are persuading this man to issue bad rules based on bad information that is anti-hunting, pure and simple. The decision are certainly not pro-wildlife, sound administration, or correct use of the regulations. It can only be a bias against hunting.

March 2, 2017

Federal officials OK desert tortoise transfer

Marines wait for a desert tortoise - endangered and protected from harm or harassment by federal law - to move off the road during an operation at Marine Corps' Air Ground Combat Center at Twentynine Palms, Calif., on April 4, 2008. Federal authorities have approved a plan to move nearly 1,500 desert tortoises from the base. (REED SAXON/AP)

By David Danelski
The Press-Enterprise
San Bernardino Sun

Federal land management and defense officials have signed off on plans by the U.S Marine Corps to move as many as 1,500 desert tortoises from a Twentynine Palms military base in the coming weeks.

With the approvals, the largest tortoise relocation effort ever the Mojave Desert is on track to occur toward the end of this month or in April after the slumbering reptiles emerge from their underground burrows, where they spend the winter months.

The move, however, cannot occur before March 21, which is the deadline for anyone to appeal the approvals from the Navy and Bureau of Land Management, said Chris Otahal, a wildlife biologist for the BLM’s Barstow field office.

The move would clear about 88,000 acres of land in the Johnson Valley for expanded live ammunition training. Congress voted in 2013 to add this land to the west side of the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center at Twentynine Palms.

The tortoises will be flown by helicopter to BLM lands mostly west and north of the Marine base.

The timing depends on the weather, but tortoises in the Mojave Desert usually leave their burrows by late March or early April so they can feast on wildflowers and other annual plants that are abundant after the winter rains.

Since the desert tortoises are listed as threatened with extinction, the Marines had to consult with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which found earlier this year that the move would not jeopardize the survival of the species.

This winter’s wet weather makes conditions more favorable for the move, increasing the tortoises’ chances of survival, Otahal said.

There will be more plant life for the displaced tortoises to eat, reducing competition for food with the tortoises already living on the BLM land. Also there will be more rabbits and other animals for coyotes to eat, which will make those predators less interested in tortoises.

“It’s much better for the tortoises when we have more food resources,” Otahal said.

The Marines had planned to move the animals last spring, but the operation was delayed a year after the Tucson-based Center for Biological Diversity filed a legal notice that argued that required environment analysis was lacking. The government then did more study, including assessing the impacts on wildlife on the BLM lands that will receive the displaced tortoises.

Ileene Anderson, a Los Angeles-based biologist for the center, said the move will be devastating to the species. The tortoises would lose some 136 square miles of quality habitat. What’s more, the displaced animals will move to BLM lands where species is in decline, she said.

“This is the largest translocation of tortoises in the Mojave Desert, and they’re moving them to areas where tortoises are dying off and we don’t know why,” Anderson said.

Super bloom looms in county desert

Desert Sunflowers are at the beginning to bloom at Anza-Borrego Desert. (Nelvin C. Cepeda / San Diego Union-Tribune)

J. Harry Jones
San Diego Union-Tribune

Signs that a “super bloom” of wildflowers is about to hit Anza-Borrego Desert State Park are popping up across the desert floor about two hours east of San Diego.

Botanists, business leaders and visitors are already buzzing around the tiny town of Borrego Springs, where big changes are overtaking the typically stark landscape.

“It’s incredibly green,” said Kathy Dice, superintendent of the 900-square-mile park, which stretches from the Riverside County line to the Mexican border in eastern San Diego County. “That’s the thing all of us have noticed. I’ve never seen it so green.”

Campgrounds in the park are packed and hotels are encouraging people to book rooms now before they are all gone. At La Casa del Zorro Resort & Spa, even weekday reservations are between 80 and 90 percent full for the next three weeks, said Lynn Bowen in the resorts sales department.

Early blooming flowers include purple desert sand verbena, yellow desert sunflowers and white desert lilies, along with dozens, even hundreds of other species.

More than 5.5 inches of rain has fallen in the desert since mid December, almost as much as falls in the average year.

Botanist Jim Dice, the park superintendent’s husband, said such an explosion of color hasn’t been seen in the area in many years — and its beauty is likely to bring hordes of visitors.

“I think we’re probably a week or two away from the prime annual wildflower bloom,” Jim Dice said. “With plenty of sun this week and 80 degree temperatures, by Friday, Saturday and Sunday we could see a pretty massive bloom. We’re just seeing the very beginning of it right now.”

Early Tuesday morning Chris Baxter got out of her car at the Visitor’s Center, camera phone in hand. “Oh look, Annie! They’re getting ready to pop! They’re getting ready to bloom!”

Baxter and Annie Dennis are visiting from a far different climate.

“For us this feels so good,” Dennis said. “We’ve been stuck in frozen Detroit so this is perfect.”

An hour later, miles away at the mouth of Coyote Canyon, Lynda and John Friar of Pacific Palisades were busy taking photographs of a lone white desert lily that had bloomed amid many other budding plants .

“It’s beautiful this year,” Lynda Friar said. “We’ve never seen it like this.”

At the visitor center in Borrego Springs, a line was already forming by 8:30 a.m. Tuesday and the crush continued throughout the day.

“We’re already having a banner year,” said the town’s chamber of commerce Executive Director Linda Haddock. “You can’t get onto Palm Canyon (Road). It’s jammed with people. The restaurants have people out the doors.”

“It’s going to be a bloom that I’ve never seen before,” she added. “I keep hearing stories from years ago about carpets of purple and yellow flowers. I’m going to be like a big kid, too.”

Though difficult to gauge, Kathy Dice said roughly a half million people visit the park every year. She expects an additional quarter million could come in March alone.

The best places to see the vibrant foliage are constantly changing, so the park has a Wildflower Hotline — 760/767-4684 — to guide people to the best spots.

“The phones are ringing off the hook,” Kathy Dice said.

On Tuesday, the latest update said recent rain was “likely to extend the blooming period for many annuals, including the sunflowers along Henderson Canyon Road which are just beginning to bloom.

“Desert lilies are blooming in profusion in the Badlands including Arroyo Salado primitive camp on Highway S-22. Annuals and shrubs are beginning to bloom at the Visitor’s Center and should continue for a few weeks at least. Wildflowers are blooming at the north end of Di Giorgio Road, drivers of two-wheel drive vehicles should park at the end of the pavement and walk up the road or out onto the flats.”

Potential visitors are also encouraged to visit the Anza-Borrego Foundations website at

Jim Dice, the reserve manager of the Steele/Burnand Anza-Borrego Desert Research Center run by the University of California, Irvine, said it’s been about nine years since a really good desert bloom and perhaps 20 years since a spectacular one.

“Just walking around the research center property the other day there are all sort of things I haven’t seen in the six years I’ve been there: Bigelow’s Monkey flower, Blazing Stars — all these annuals that haven’t been around or have been very, very rare recently.”