February 20, 2019

Mojave River flows through Barstow for first time since 2011

The Mojave River flows near the Deep Creek area during a winter storm last week. Inflow to the Mojave River at its headwaters peaked at approximately 15,000 cubic feet per second during the storm, according to provisional estimates. [James Quigg, Daily Press]

By Matthew Cabe
Victor Valley Press

BARSTOW — Recent rains allowed surface water in the Mojave River to flow through the city for the first time in eight years, signaling good news for recharge in regional aquifers, according to Mojave Water Agency officials.

MWA Senior Hydrogeologist/Engineer Tony Winkel told the Daily Press inflow to the Mojave River at its headwaters on Thursday peaked at approximately 15,000 cubic feet per second, according to provisional estimates.

That inflow surged through the inlet within the Mojave River Dam, sometimes called the Forks Dam, where the Deep Creek and West Fork tributaries converge.

Winkel said previous storms in recent weeks allowed the river to soak up water “like a big dry sponge.” Because the river can only absorb water so quickly, though, water from last week’s storm subsequently “skirted” along through Barstow, petering out just beyond Minneola Road in Yermo late last week.

“Minneola Road is kind of the upper end of the Baja subarea, but it was kind of a trickle,” Winkel said. “So right at the headwaters, it’s raging. You get down to the tail end of it, it’s just trickling because that much water has soaked in, which is a good thing because that’s water supply.”

Amid the worst drought in California history several years ago, the High Desert finally received some wet weather in 2017. But that water didn’t reach Barstow, which makes last week’s storm significant because it was the city’s “first influx of water since 2011,” Winkel said.

To understand just how much water flowed into the Mojave River on Thursday, MWA Water Conservation and Forecast Manager Nick Schneider said to imagine 15,000 basketballs bouncing through the inlet — in one second.

The analogy isn’t precise, according to Schneider and Winkel because a basketball isn’t exactly one cubic foot. Schneider, however, said the “industry conversion idea” is fair for visualization purposes.

“For the layman, if you think of a basketball, that’s a good way to process it,” Winkel said. “For an engineer, it drove me nuts.”

While 15,000 CFS is impressive and welcome, Winkel said last week’s storm, historically, pales in comparison to older weather events that brought significant inflow at the Mojave River’s headwaters.

On March 4, 1978, inflow peaked above 35,000 CFS, according to data Winkel provided. Some 40 years earlier, during what’s been called the “flood of the century” that ravaged the High Desert in March 1938, inflow peaked at nearly 75,000 CFS.

The data, which included estimates as far back as December 1859, showed at least 16 peak events with a magnitude above 25,000 CFS, including a Jan. 22, 1862, incident during which inflow is estimated at more than 100,000 CFS.

That peak came during the Great Flood of 1862, which started with a series of storms in December 1861 and is considered the largest flood in California’s history. It’s unknown how much damage occurred locally, but Sacramento was underwater for months. Schneider said newly elected Gov. Leland Stanford had to travel by rowboat to and from his inauguration in January.

Winkel said last week’s storm was nowhere near even the peaks seen in the wet winters of 2010 and 2011, which were also below 25,000 CFS. That said, it’s important in its own right because it equals recharge for the High Desert’s water supply, he said.

Consequential weather events occur, on average, every six to eight years, but that cycle isn’t consistent and the peaks are “very variable”, according to Winkel. Still, the High Desert, insofar as water supply is concerned, relies on peak events like the one experienced last week, he said.

“So how significant is it that the water made it to Barstow?” Winkel said. “Very. Because that’s the natural supply that we depend on.”

Specific recharge data for last week’s storm is not yet available because “we’re still in the storm swell,” according to Winkel, who said he’s hoping for more rain this year.

“Aside from the excitement factor of a river that’s actually flowing, which is very exciting because it usually doesn’t, I want to see more for water supply purposes.”

February 2, 2019

A monumental flight over Mojave Trails

Mojave Desert Land Trust aerial tour shows splendor of national monument whose status could be reassessed

Amboy Crater is a significant geological feature of the Mojave Trails National Monument. Last week, the Mojave Desert Land Trust hosted an aerial tour as part of the third anniversary of the monument. [James Quigg, Daily Press]

By Matthew Cabe
Victor Valley Daily News

Storm clouds hovered over the city and patches of rain fell from above the nearby San Jacinto Mountains, but two Mojave Desert Land Trust officials arrived at the international airport here last week ready for a celebration.

Staff at the Joshua Tree-based nonprofit recently completed plans to commemorate the upcoming third anniversary of Mojave Trails, Sand to Snow and Castle Mountains national monuments.

All three were established Feb. 12, 2016, by former President Barack Obama through use of the Antiquities Act. Combined, they encompass nearly 1.8 million acres in the Mojave, Colorado and Sonoran deserts.

To offer a comprehensive view, MDLT partnered with the nonprofit EcoFlight for a series of flyovers within the Mojave Trails National Monument, which boasts 1.6 million acres and is the largest national monument in the 48 contiguous states, according to MDLT Communications Director Jessica Dacey.

Shortly before 10 a.m. Tuesday, Dacey and MDLT Education Coordinator Adam Henne briefed a group of passengers that included a Daily Press reporter and photographer.

“You get a bit of a buzz when you go up there,” Dacey said. “Especially coming from this angle ... you start to understand the seamlessness between the parks.”

Tuesday’s flight traveled first above Joshua Tree National Park, then over Sheep Hole Pass, which served as the Cessna 210′s entrance into Mojave Trails.

For Dacey and others, part of the monument’s importance is its function as a wildlife corridor connecting the national park and the Mojave National Preserve, the more than 1.5-million-acre swath of National Park Service land between interstates 15 and 40.

Within the monument, the Cady Mountains serve as one of the best areas in the Mojave Desert to see bighorn sheep, according to MDLT.

The North American population of the muscular animal with curved horns was once estimated in the millions. By 1900, human encroachment diminished bighorn sheep numbers to several thousand, National Wildlife Federation statistics show. Conservation efforts have since brought those numbers up to nearly 8,000.

Bonanza Spring, located near the monument’s northern border, is the only wetland for 1,000 square miles. Like the Cady Mountains, the spring is also home to bighorns and 70 bird species.

Dacey said the habitat connectivity created with the monument’s establishment allows many animals to roam, helps increase their populations and protects plant life they need to survive.

There are also unique historical and cultural aspects to the monument’s significance, she said.

Mojave Trails is home to the longest undeveloped section of U.S. Route 66. Preservation of the “Mother Road,” according to the World Monuments Fund, would equal positive economic effects like “sustainable tourism.”

The monument also includes some of the best-preserved sites from the World War II-era Desert Training Center where, under the command of Gen. George S. Patton, more than a million troops were trained on 18,000 square miles for desert combat in North Africa.

Deep within the vast expanse visible through the Cessna’s starboard-side windows, another geographical feature appeared, albeit inconspicuously from 2,500 feet above the desert floor.

The Cadiz Dunes Wilderness spans nearly 20,000 acres in the heart of the monument. The dunes appear to “hum in the wind,” Dacey told passengers.

“I think they’re more majestic than the Kelso Dunes in the Preserve,” she said.

Bruce Gordon, who piloted the Cessna, nodded in agreement from behind his aviators. Gordon founded EcoFlight in 2002 to advocate for environmental protection via programs and aerial visuals that expand public awareness of wild lands.

He couldn’t help but take his hands off the Cessna’s yoke to capture photographs of the pristine topography below. He used the 80-minute flight to share his own knowledge of the region.

Several concerns were noted, as well.

One, MDLT contends, is Cadiz Inc.’s planned water project, which would pull 50,000-acre-feet of water a year from an ancient aquifer beneath the Mojave Desert. The water would later be sold in Southern California.

Cadiz owns roughly 34,000 acres within Mojave Trails, Dacey said. Company officials have said the pumping would not harm the environment. Rather, the project would conserve surplus water lost to evaporation at nearby dry lakes.

Cadiz’s research maintains that Bonanza Spring would not be impacted by pumping. Other research published in 2018 called the company’s findings into question and said the project would threaten Bonanza Spring, according to MDLT, which funded some of the research.

Cadiz CEO and President Scott Slater has stated the company is confident of no interconnection between groundwater and water levels in Bonanza Spring, the company’s website shows.

MDLT officials say the project could harm the bighorns that use Bonanza Spring. Dacey said a pipeline for the project has not yet been constructed.

Gordon navigated the plane toward Amboy Crater, situated about three miles southwest of Roy’s Motel and Cafe. At 80,000 years old, Amboy is “North America’s youngest volcano,” Dacey said.

MDLT is one of several environmental groups working to secure Mojave Trails’ status, which Dacey said is “in limbo.”

In April 2017, President Donald Trump issued an executive order directing Interior Department Secretary Ryan Zinke — who resigned his post last month — to review national monuments of at least 100,000 acres that have been designated since 1996.

Trump’s goal was to determine whether the monuments needed reduction or elimination. Mojave Trails was subsequently included for review. Trump called the monuments, particularly Bear Ears National Monument in Utah, a “massive federal land grab.”

An initial report released in December 2017 included changes to 10 monuments. That same month, Trump signed proclamations that scaled back Bear Ears, as well as Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. In doing so, he declared, “Public lands will once again be for public use.”

Mojave Trails has not been altered, but Dacey said it’s never officially been declared safe.

When the monument was established, a management plan had to be drawn up by this month. That process was halted amid the Interior Department’s review. MDLT is part of a coalition working on a community proposal for a management plan. Dacey said the expectation is for it to guide future planning for Mojave Trails.

In 2016, visitors to Joshua Tree National Park more than doubled to over 2.5 million, prompting Park Superintendent David Smith to declare it was being “loved to death.” Dacey said attendance now is well over 3 million per year.

Amid the rise in popularity, as well as a massive clean-up effort underway in the damaged park following the partial federal government shutdown, groups are hoping to increase awareness of places like Mojave Trails as alternative destinations.

The question MDLT wants people to ask is, “What do these other public lands have to offer?” Dacey said.

From overhead, the answer seems simple enough.

February 1, 2019

Feds start process to manage Colorado River after states miss drought plan deadline

A view of Hoover Dam is seen from the Mike O'Callaghan-Pat Tillman Memorial Bridge on Wednesday, Aug. 28, 2018. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)

By Daniel Rothberg
The Nevada Independent

Citing increasing risks of shortages on the Colorado River, federal water managers said they are starting a process to protect the overused and drought-stricken watershed, after the seven states that use the river missed a deadline Thursday to complete a drought plan.

On Friday morning, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, a federal agency that manages waterways and dams across the West, submitted a formal notice asking each Colorado River Basin state to submit comments about how to manage the river in lieu of a drought plan. In December, Reclamation Commissioner Brenda Burman told the states that the states had until Jan. 31 to finish negotiating a drought deal that has been in the works for about three years.

“While we are getting closer, we are still not done,” Burman said on a call with reporters.

Despite Friday’s action, Burman said the agency’s preferred approach would be to implement the drought plan, which is nearly complete. If a plan is approved before March 4, when states start submitting comments, Burman said the agency would rescind its action. But if Arizona and California, the two states that have not finished the plan, cannot come to an agreement before then, Burman vowed to move down a path giving her broad authority to manage the river.

Such an action, Burman said, was not the agency’s “preferred approach.”

“However, any further delay elevates existing risk for the basin to unacceptable levels,” Burman told reporters. “The basin is teetering on the brink of shortage and there is a potential for Lake Powell and Lake Mead to decline to critically low elevations in the very near future.”

For years, the basin states — Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, Utah and Wyoming — have been working on a deal to cut usage amid a nearly two-decade drought. Lower average streamflows have intensified overuse on the Colorado River, a watershed that stretches from Wyoming to Mexico and supports more than 40 million people in the Southwest. As a result, the elevation of the river’s main reservoirs, Lake Mead and Lake Powell, dropped to historic lows.

Five states, including Nevada, have signed off on the deal, known as the Drought Contingency Plan (DCP). Several Southern California irrigation districts have yet to review and sign off on the final plan. For more than a year, the biggest roadblock to finishing the drought plan was in Central Arizona, a region that could be required to cut nearly half of its Colorado River supply under the plan. Those cuts, which will hit agricultural producers the hardest, had been the subject of intense negotiations between farmers, tribes and cities, as irrigation districts pushed for mitigation water.

But on Thursday, Arizona lawmakers reached an agreement passing legislation that allowed the drought plan to move forward. Burman called the development a “tremendous step forward” and said it was a signal that Arizona’s approval of the drought plan could be “imminent.” Still, Burman said she issued the notice because the final contracts were still not in place.

“We appreciate the acknowledgment of Arizona’s accomplishment and look forward to all parties across the basin to work together to complete the DCP process by the commissioner’s March 4 deadline,” said Crystal Thompson, a spokesperson for the Central Arizona Project, which controls a 336-mile canal that delivers Colorado River water from Lake Havasu to Tucson.

Nevada, through the Southern Nevada Water Authority, became the first state to approve the drought plan in November. Because the water authority is using less water than it is allowed to use under the Colorado River Compact allocation, it would be able to sustain cuts to its supply.

Colby Pellegrino, the water authority’s Colorado River manager, said the water authority is “pretty optimistic” that “we will have that seven-state consensus within the next few weeks.”

Intervention from the federal government would be a significant departure from the state-driven approach that has characterized Colorado River management. When it comes to the Colorado River, the agency has traditionally allowed the states to craft collaborative rules for how it should manage its complex rulebook for operating dams and processing water deliveries.

Burman did not elaborate on what a possible action would look like and noted that she had legal authority to take necessary action under Arizona v. California, a 1963 Supreme Court case. But Burman said that the best approach would be for the states to approve a collaborative plan.

“It’s better to have consensus,” she said. “These are questions that a lot of people don’t want to answer. It’s better to have consensus on the river than exploring a lot of legal hypotheticals.”

Long before Burman threatened federal action in December, the states have sought to avoid that outcome. Many water managers believe that handing over more control to the federal government would take away the certainty and predictability they have in making decisions.

“Certainty to us is being able to predict the quantity and timing of shortages,” Pellegrino said.

That certainty, Pellegrino said, allows the water authority to plan for shortages, create accurate modeling and conduct risk assessments. Under current streamflow forecasts, the Bureau of Reclamation is expected to issue its first shortage declaration for Lake Mead at the start of 2020.