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.