• Pioneers In The Desert
• Silurian Valley In The Crosshairs
• Solar Tentacles Reach Into Owens Valley
• The Wilderness Act: History Of Wilderness In Southern California
• The Wilderness Act: The East Mojave
• Interview With Steve Mietz, Superintendant of Great Basin National Park
• Ocotillo Wells
• The Impacts Of Energy Projects On Migratory Birds
• Current Issues
• Visioning and Marketing of Desert Natural and Cultural Heritage Tourism: The Renewable Tourism Economy
• The West Mojave Area And the Travel Management Plan: Unbalanced Subgroup Leads To Flawed Result
• Will There Ever Be A Desert Tortoise National Wildlife Refuge?
• What Is Wilderness? Revisiting The Wilderness Act Of 1964
• Manzanar: Farewell To Viewshed?
• Eagles Left Adrift In Our Pursuit Of Wind Energy
• For the Desert: What We’ve Lost, What We Remember, Where We Gather, Where the Eagle Rises
• The Salton Sea Initiative
The Visioning and Marketing of Desert Natural and Cultural Heritage Tourism
Thirty years ago when I moved to the Mojave Desert this amazing landscape captured me. A northern Californian by birthright and experience, I thought my residency would last three years before taking in additional wonders of California’s State Park System. Such is the adventure of being a State Park Ranger.
When my wife Marsha and I moved to Red Rock Canyon State Park it was an amazingly abrupt and stark contrast from where I worked at cool foggy Half Moon Bay State Beach. We arrived to unload in unseasonably warm 108-degree weather in late May of 1984. Our first thought was ‘what have we done.’ Even though hot summer temperatures garnished our first desert season, these redwood forest dwellers immediately were drawn to the solitude and beauty of the surrounding desert. We found a long-term home we never expected.
When our northern Californian friends and family asked ‘what did you do wrong’ to be banished to a desert landscape, we kindly explained the new wonderful world we had discovered. People who have not truly encountered the desert often mistake its extremes and openness as a forgotten, foreboding wasteland.
Captured by both the reality and the ever-present imagination the desert inspires, I spent the last twenty years of my State Park career at Red Rock Canyon. It was my pleasure to introduce people to the wonders of the desert and the beauty of Red Rock Canyon in particular. I saw myself as a catalyst to their enjoyment; an ambassador for the fascinating geology, and a conveyor of the intricate beauty and bounty of desert life, with all of its splendid adaptations for survival.
I quickly found Red Rock was becoming popular, not by marketing, but by word of mouth. Attendance and interest rapidly grew. Red Rock Canyon quickly became a staple on a much larger destination tourism cycle that stretched from Yosemite, Sequoia, and Kings Canyon National Parks in the north all the way to the Grand Canyon, Bryce, and Zion in the Southwest. Many of our travelers were heading to or coming from Death Valley National Park.
At first European tourists stumbled into Red Rock rather blindly. These Europeans were fascinated by the American West and remarked what a special surprise it was to discover Red Rock Canyon. Within two years the European experience transformed from happenstance to an intentional targeted encounter. Arriving Europeans proudly displayed printed guidebooks touting Red Rock Canyon in virtually every European language. By 1996 European tourism accounted for nearly 4% of all overnight stays at the park, all without any proactive marketing. And use by foreign tourists was on the rise.
The State of California’s Travel and Tourism Council distributes strategic information about foreign tourist preferences, posting detailed survey results from a variety of countries online. Pursuant to these tools, targeted marketing campaigns can be individualized by country. For instance, European travelers routinely identify visiting parks, small towns, historical places, and touring the countryside as high value goals during their California sojourns.
Despite strong evidence, California State Parks are not acknowledged for their contribution to California’s economy. One of the first studies to quantify California State Parks economic impact concluded that for every General Fund dollar Californians invested in our State Park System, $2.35 in tax revenues were returned to that same General Fund. Throughout the years other studies consistently documented our State Park’s economic prowess.
One of the most recent studies (BBC Research and Consulting, 2010) concluded that California State Parks generate $3.2 billion in annual visitor spending, leading to a total economic impact of $6.41 billion. That same report concluded that California State Parks contribute $145 million in local tax revenues and $289 million in state tax revenues annually. During that same period the General Fund allocation for State Parks totaled only $131 million, $14 million less than the tax dollars generated for local communities alone. Since that time State Park’s allocation from the General Fund has fallen to $116 million.
Traveling to and from our parks, visitors stop in local towns, shop, buy goods, and acquire remembrances and souvenirs. An economic tread links this tourism travel. From food to fuel, from entertainment to lodging, tourists need and rejoice in the services en route communities provide. In this fashion, state parks and other heritage tourism are incredibly strong small business engines.
Just when we should be helping tourism expand to new heights, we are constantly publicizing the uncertain status of our parks. Services remain reduced and hours of operation uncertain. And closer to home, Kern County officials seem posed to impact tourism further through the pending approval of a mega-solar installation known as AquaHelio, proposing to install over 2 million solar panels south of Red Rock’s border. AquaHelio calls their transformation of the local landscape the “Fremont Valley Preservation Project.” Just beyond the park’s northern boundary another 25,000-acre wind farm known as Laurel Mountain remains a prospect.
I have written before about my support for alternative energy, but equally of its wise, harmonious and judicious placement. Surrounding our desert parks and natural areas with industrial landscapes attacks and degrades our tourism infrastructure. This is simply not our wisest, or only, course of action.
Within eastern Kern County, Red Rock Canyon is only one element within a corridor of tourism which should be devoted to the renewable tourism economy. Red Rock and the Bureau of Land Management’s Jawbone-Butterbredt ACEC together attract a diverse array of recreational customers who explore the scenic and open space character of the recreational opportunities. The AquaHelio project rests juxtaposed to the tourism entry pathway for both arenas, significantly impacting initial perceptions. In its current design, the proposed project will completely pinch the scenic corridor and reformat these perceptions.
Unfortunately, the Kern County Planning Department hasn’t proactively developed tourism modeling nor built tourism corridors into its land use planning. This, despite the fact Red Rock Canyon State Park was established in large part due to the persistent nudging of local civic associations and governmental bodies. As early as 1928 both the Kern County Board of Supervisors and the Civic Commercial Association of Bakersfield actively promoted the establishment of a park at Red Rock Canyon.
Red Rock Canyon remains one of the signature parks of the California State Park System. It is as important to science as it is to public enjoyment, relaxation and appreciation. By example, 30 species new to science have first been named from Red Rock Canyon discoveries, several within recent decades.
Eastern Kern County represents an impressive rural landscape, which currently reflects the American heritage of westward expansion. The landscape retains enough pristine character to easily envision Native Americans in their homeland. With strategic planning and promotion Kern County could sell a vision of the Old West, where one can still imagine stagecoaches rambling over the dusty terrain or the toils of weary gold rush immigrants. Eastern Kern currently enjoys significant recreational tourism, even in the virtual absence of attractive interpretive thematic messaging.
The community of Ridgecrest, having recognized this potential, promotes itself as a gateway to Death Valley and this year has created a signature Rock Art Festival designed to celebrate local heritage and attract tourists. In addition, Ridgecrest, like most of eastern Kern County, benefits from continued Hollywood filming. The beauty, hues, and textures of our local desert landscape have inspired constant use by the film and television industries. Within Red Rock Canyon alone in excess of 150 motion pictures containing canyon imagery are documented from the silent picture era onwards.
In fact, Ridgecrest is actually well situated to capitalize on both the prevalence of motion picture history as well as these pristine vistas reminiscent of earlier times. Ridgecrest could sport an imaginative film festival, anchored by city infrastructure, which involved touring both prominent motion picture locales and simultaneously historic mining encampments and old stagecoach trails; in other words a unique event celebrating both the real and the mythic West.
Kern County, and the desert Kern communities, have never fully analyzed such economic potential, nor pursued an integrated strategy identifying the essential elements of economic development, to ensure that such potential is not degraded by unharmonious development.
Planned and managed growth offers potential to both entice and attract development, while simultaneously preserving unhindered tourism economics.
Unfortunately, the proposed AquaHelio project when implemented not only will irrevocably impact current tourism aesthetics, but additionally unmet potential. The harshness of this transition will degrade tourist’s impressions and impinge upon the intrinsic values Kern County has yet to fully capitalize in pursuit of its economic favor. Planning departments should at minimum buffer non-harmonious landscapes from direct connection.
It is also imperative that our planning agencies abide by prior commitments made to local, and in this case our statewide, citizens. Today, most innovative communities see their physical setting as an attribute to their way of life. We must embrace and celebrate our desert ecosystems for the values they intrinsically possess. We must view the open spaces as wonderfully rich vistas providing visions of expansive sunsets; a landscape where we can exhale and let problems drift away. We must sell prospective businesses and residents on the beauty of our theater, and not conversely treat it as a curse.
In the Information Age, with so much fast moving data, branding, especially proactive branding and marketing, is an increasingly essential commodity. If you don’t define yourself – proactively – others will. Will our actions convey our theater as an inhospitable, expendable wasteland or will we uphold our terrains as a destination wonderland?
In our noble race to achieve energy independence and a sustainable climate we cannot afford haphazard short-term decisions. Why would we want to undercut our heritage landscape economy? Why not celebrate, promote, market and enhance our natural and cultural treasures as an asset of our wonderful renewable tourism economy.
A native of northern California, Mark Faull moved to the eastern Kern County region in 1984. For 20 years Mark worked at Red Rock Canyon State Park before retiring from California State Parks in 2004. His passion for and understanding of park values continues, as well as his study of the fascinating local human history and its connection to the desert environment.
Kumeyaay Indian Mourning Ceremony for the loss of cultural and geographic habitat for Ocotillo Wind Express Project at Ocotillo, California, June 2012
In June, 2012
I saw three golden eagles
on the morning and following
morning of the long, split moon night
of a night-long mourning ceremony
sponsored by Kumeyaay Indians
who for centuries, along with
Quechan and other desert people
have called this desert home
and who mourn the desecration
of sacred desert land, the blading
of old growth Ocotillo and desert
floor and ceremonial places for
a 40-story-high wind farm zone
with blades that kill desert birds,
making circles that fly nowhere
and sluice the desert heart apart
into more broken pieces than two
In June, 2012, I attended an all-night Native American mourning ceremony near the tiny town of Ocotillo, CA – located east of San Diego, where mountain meets desert – in commemoration of the loss of sacred desert sites for the construction of a massive wind tower zone. To begin with, I would like to offer my greatest thanks and the deepest respect to the desert Indian tribes and leaders and bird singers/dancers for offering this highly sacred ceremony to the public, which was coordinated and sponsored by Viejas Band of Kumeyaay Tribal Chairman Anthony Pico; esteemed elders from other tribes, such as Preston Arrow-Weed, of the Quechan tribe, and his wife Helen, were also present and participated in the ceremony. I would like to offer my greatest thanks and the deepest respect to our desert Indian leaders and elders and singers and people for their tireless and enduring dedication to caring for the California desert. They are an inspiration beyond inspiration to all of us, and it is in their honor that I speak today.
In June, 2012
I saw three golden eagles
along the long highway
on my way to the ceremony
on the morning of the night
of a night-long mourning ceremony
for the eagles being killed,
for the turtles being killed,
for the tall Ocotillo being killed,
for all that is being sacrificed
in the name of renewable energy
in the name of “go green”
in the name of destroying things
and we’ve gathered to heal
the wounds in our desert hearts
to try to stop the bleeding
to try to staunch the wounds
on the sacred desert ground
and so, alone, I drove
taking nothing with me
on my car’s dashboard
and moving into my own
form of road grief and prayer
I was blessed by birds.
In June, 2012, I was a wreck. It felt like both my personal life and my beloved, lifelong homeland, the Mojave and other California deserts, were being torn apart. My only child, Tarah, had just left home for Ft. Lewis Washington, where she was drinking herself into a numbed stupor as a way to cope while my son-in-law Alex was on a year-long tour of Afghanistan with the Army. I was also reeling from the recent loss of my partner to suicide. My life was being jerked up and down by severe losses, and it had become more than I could bear; all of this paralleled the federal renewable energy land grab over desert lands I know intimately well, through my years, starting in childhood, of widely exploring, hiking, camping, exploring the California deserts, and later, working as a wildland firefighter for the BLM California Desert District.
In June, 2012
The first eagle
had landed in the center divider
of Interstate 60 in the Badlands,
and was waiting there
for me to arrive
and drive by.
He lifted slowly
when I approached,
then powered off
into the distant sky,
heavy with road kill.
In June, 2012, I was devastated to be experiencing, from an inside perspective, the onset of, metaphorically but actually pretty literal onset of heinous stage four cancer throughout the entire desert body. It was too much. I was grabbing onto hope beyond hope and trying to connect as my personal life in the desert – metaphorically and literally – was fragmented, falling apart, being destroyed, seemingly, by uncontrollable outside forces. For me, this is not “the other place” to go for kicks with somewhere else to go back to. This is home for me in the most profound and enduring and beloved way, and this is where my center is. Throughout my life, the desert has provided deep healing and inspiration and renewal no matter what challenges I’ve encountered in my life. The California and southwest deserts are also my academic and literary home; I’m a lifelong scholar and professor of desert literature, and also know the deserts intimately through the oral traditions and stories of the region’s indigenous peoples and a rich legacy of western and contemporary poetry and prose. But now, where was I to go?
And so I drove to the Mourning Ceremony in June, 2012, looking for much-needed community and healing within my own heart of hearts.
In June, 2012
the second eagle
was painted on the side of a big-rig
just a few miles down the road
on Interstate 10, huge.
It rode alongside me for miles,
with Santa Ana winds
gathering at our backs, larger
than life or windmills
And I passed the giant
blades of towers that behead
so many living things at the
hips and brow of the hills
of the open mouth
of the Colorado Desert
near Palm Springs
“This is not a protest,” Viejas Kumeyaay Chairman Anthony Pico made clear. Instead, he called for all of the hundreds of participants to come together in a time of “healing.” Viejas was one of several bands of the Kumeyaay nation represented; other San Diego bands included Barona, Sycuan, and Manzanita. Some traveled from out of state, such as those from the Navajo nation. Prayers were recited, followed by an all-night wake with ancient birdsongs and dancing to honor the generations of long ago whose consecrated ashes lie in the dust now being disturbed across the 12,500 acre Ocotillo Wind Express Project. Writer Miriam Rafferty, who attended, noted that “The mood was not one of anger, but of dignified resolve—a determination to unite all Indian nations and the public to understand the magnitude of what is being lost.”
In June, 2012
The third eagle
was a fine piece of art,
carved into the bolero tie
of Viejo Chairman
in ivory white, every
fine detail of feather
chiseled like wind hearts
against the chairman’s throat
and holding together hope
with powerful wings
battling the destruction
of wind farms on the
sacred desert floor, of
places we cannot replace
Many of my desert-based friends and associates also attended the June, 2012 ceremony; these are people who I admire greatly for their perseverance and dedication to advocating for the desert and encouraging others to do the same. It was greatly comforting for me to see so many of my desert defender friends there, and to share in the ceremony’s power with them. I’ve gathered feedback from some of them on what the June 2012 Mourning Ceremony near Ocotillo meant to them.
Pat Flanagan is a desert naturalist, educator and science curriculum writer; she attended the ceremony, and says, “Shortly after I arrived, Chairman Pico came up to me and gently told me to search within my heart for comfort and healing during the ceremony. Passing along the olla and the two baskets made with thoughtful caring hands full of memories – after they were given to me at the end of the ceremony during a giveaway – anchored me in the place and into the stream of the bird songs. And I am glad I do not have them. The gifts and the giving were what opened my heart to be a conduit for the blessings and comfort that had poured out through the long night.”
Longtime desert defender and advocate Tom Budlong, who was also there, says: ” The project is unnecessary, economically unjustifiable, a violation of our own rules in innumerable details, and most of all, disrespectful of our Native American population. We sacrifice this spot, sacred to the tribes & precious to all visitors, without being clever enough to use the vast rooftop acreage available where the power from this project will be used. It is indeed shameful. The wake was a powerful ceremony. We could learn a lot about respect from it.”
In June 2012
I’m telling you this story
because it’s true
because all three eagles
flew above our heads
while the men shook rattles
and sang bird songs
all night long from sunset
to dawn, because we all wept
on the hill by the medicine wheel
when it felt like the sun had died
Terry Frewin, dedicated desert activist who coordinates and hosts many of the Sierra Club desert committee meetings, was also there. He says, “The experience of the Kumeyaay Ceremony touched all the bases (it is World Series time). I was very humbled to be invited and acknowledged, and experienced a profound sense of sadness, as well as one of hopefulness, as I saw the variety of folks, young and old, honoring their heritage and ancestors. Simply put, the experience of the ceremony strengthened my commitment to keep doing the right thing for the desert.”
Morning, and mourning
In June 2012
the sun soon grew too warm
and the wind refused to howl
so I held a small, handmade
basket in my hands
that was gifted to me
after it was gifted
to someone else
a small basket, so empty,
and so full of bird songs
Ruth Nolan, M.A., a lifelong resident of California’s deserts, is Professor of English at College of the Desert in Palm Desert. She is editor of No Place for a Puritan: the literature of California’s Deserts (Heyday Books, 2009). An avid California desert defender and scholar, she is also a widely published poet and writer. She writes about the desert for KCET Artbound Los Angeles; Heyday Books; the Riverside Press Enterprise; and for many poetry and literary magazines. She worked as a wildland firefighter for the BLM California Desert District during the 1980’s.
• BLM Reopens Parts Of Dunes That Had Been Closed For 10 Years
• A Profile Of Superintendent Mark Butler
• Proposed Development of a New City on Park’s Southern Border
• Wilderness: Our Shared Heritage And Legacy
• Architecture And Nature
• Geothermal Development In Northern Nevada
• Public Resources At Risk From Bechtel
• Current Issues
• The Colorado A River Under Stress
• Phainopepla: The Bird In The Shiny Black Robe
Soda Mountain Solar Looms Over Mojave National Preserve
The fundamental contradiction in the numerous proposals by private companies to build industrial-scale renewable energy projects and long-distance power lines on acreage administered by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) is that the lands are public while the profits from the construction and operation (or sale) of the power plants and transmission lines accrue to large corporations. The public does gain electricity. Yet the energy would be just as available and the contradiction avoided through siting on private, previously-disturbed lands or through distributed generation at sites near where the electricity is consumed.
The contradiction is especially evident in the proposal by Soda Mountain Solar, a subsidiary of Bechtel Development Company, to site its Soda Mountain Solar project (hereafter, project) on public lands immediately adjacent to the Mojave National Preserve, the third largest unit of the National Park System in the contiguous U.S. at 1.6 million acres.
The proposed project is a 350-megawatt photovoltaic (PV) electric power generating plant set for siting on 4,397 acres of public land administered by the BLM some 6 miles southwest of Baker, California. The application by Soda Mountain Solar, LLC requests a right-of-way authorization to construct a solar field on 2,691 acres, a project substation, an access road, operations and maintenance buildings, and to realign approximately 3.3 miles of Rasor Road. The North Array, on the west side of Interstate 15, is proposed to end in the vicinity of the Zzyzx Road overpass. On the other side of the highway, the South Array will be situated next to the Rasor Off-Highway Vehicle Area. The East Array is proposed for construction immediately to the north, less than one mile from the Mojave National Preserve boundary and at the base of the mountains extending into the park.
The Public Scoping Report was released in January 2013 by BLM, the lead NEPA agency for National Environmental Policy Act proceedings, and San Bernardino County, the lead CEQA agency under the California Environmental Quality Act. The letters of commentary submitted by individuals, environmental organizations, California government agencies, and such national entities as the National Park Service during the October to December 2012 scoping period and summarized in the Report delineate a host of likely environmental consequences to public lands and the Mojave National Preserve, many of which may be irreversible. The potential, significant environmental impacts include decreased spring discharge in the Soda Springs (Zzyzx) area as a result of groundwater pumping for the project, loss of habitat for the endangered Mohave tui chub, loss of high-quality desert tortoise habitat, increased habitat fragmentation for desert bighorn sheep, and the loss of wildlife connectivity with the Soda Mountains. http://www.blm.gov/ca/st/en/fo/barstow/renewableenergy/soda_mountain.html
The consequences for the Mojave National Preserve are of special concern because the project threatens not only the particular resources and landscape that Congress mandated to be protected by the California Desert Protection Act of 1994, but the very integrity of this treasured unit of the National Park System. The integrity of the Preserve — its essential quality — rests on the fact that it (a) protects a relatively intact ecosystem of the eastern Mojave Desert from threats associated with commercial development, (b) provides connectivity between other protected national areas within the Mojave desert region, and (c) provides opportunities for solitude, thereby functioning as a refuge from urban areas.
It is disingenuous to reject this argument merely because the project would be sited on the doorstep of the Mojave National Preserve rather than within its boundaries. The currently undeveloped, natural area at the northwest corner of the Mojave National Preserve where the project might be sited is effectively part of the park. This is most evident with respect to the unobstructed and dramatic view into the Preserve documented in the panoramic photo by Michael Gordon. This vista would be obscured by project buildings and PV panels attached to single-axis trackers with a minimum height of 20 feet. In order to ensure solitude for visitors and a refuge from urban areas, the National Park Service manages the Preserve to protect dark skies. A solar facility at the corner of the Preserve is incompatible with that management goal because a solar facility with all of its lighting will significantly degrade the visitor experience. The project will violate the visual integrity of the Preserve.
The proposal to site the Soda Mountain Solar project near the Mojave National Preserve and the likely consequences of that for local citizens reflect the growing income inequality in the United States, the gap between the richest 1 percent and the remaining 99 percent of the population in America. Bechtel, a transnational corporation that will profit financially from the construction of the project, is a privately-owned engineering and construction firm. Chairman and chief executive officer Riley P. Bechtel is the great grandson of founder Warren A. Bechtel and heir to the company. Riley Bechtel is consistently ranked in the top 200 richest people in the United States and among the richest men in the world. Thus a Soda Mountain Solar project will not be built adjacent to Bohemian Grove in Sonoma County, site of the San Francisco-based exclusive men’s hangout known as the Bohemian Club, where members like Riley Bechtel encamp each summer. But it will be constructed on public land far from the closed-to-the-public encampment in Sonoma.
This is more than an academic argument as the public resources at risk from the project are those enjoyed by the 99 percent. Annually, some 550,000 people visit the Preserve and their experience will be impacted by Soda Mountain Solar. School children from the gate-way community of Barstow, many of whom have never been to a national park, travel via Zzyzx Road (and through the project if it is built) on National Park Service-organized field trips to the Desert Studies Center to experience the desert up close, to learn of the history and culture of the Chemehuevi, and, if they are lucky, to see the bighorn sheep that frequent the springs in the area. The Desert Studies Center, a field station of California State University, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It provides an opportunity for these children to receive instruction among natural ponds, dry lakes, and rugged mountains. Local citizens who use the Rasor Off-Highway Vehicle Area will be impacted by the realignment of Rasor Road. The safety of the thousands who travel to and from Las Vegas on Interstate 15 may be at risk from the glare of the estimated 1.5 million PV panels that will comprise the facility. The project simply does not serve the public interest.
There is a larger, regional context for the contradiction between private and public interests revealed by the Soda Mountain Solar project. The once-dramatic view of the Ivanpah Valley on a moonlit night from atop Clark Mountain, a singular unit of Mojave National Preserve, has been altered beyond redemption by the panels, looming towers, and bright lights of the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System, a power facility built by BrightSource Energy and Bechtel. The Iberdrola energy project, proposed for the Silurian Valley a few miles away, would, along with the Soda Mountain Solar project, interfere markedly with connectivity between Joshua Tree and Death Valley National Parks, an essential habitat corridor with Mojave National Preserve at its biological center.
Perhaps, as with the Wall Street movement, those who care deeply about Mojave National Preserve will occupy the contested space to protect the public interest.
G. Sidney Silliman is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona and a member of the California/Nevada Desert Committee. The arguments expressed here do not represent the views of the Committee or the University.
The Colorado River is vitally important to the residents of the seven western states that share its drainage basin. It supplies irrigation and drinking water to more than 30 million people over an area stretching from Denver to San Diego. Unfortunately, the river is over allocated and over utilized and with the current drought we are reaching the point where who uses its water and how much they use will almost certainly have to change.
In order to understand how we’ve gotten to where we are today it is necessary to look back at how the Colorado River, one of the most regulated in the world, has been manipulated and managed since 1900. Prior to the twentieth century the Colorado ran free and was only utilized by those few people and settlements along the river that used minor amounts for irrigation and municipal purposes. The Colorado is one of the very few rivers in this country that has no major cities along its banks, although Las Vegas is only a few miles away. The river has never really been suitable for navigation, and the extremely hot summers along the lower reaches discouraged settlement. Most of the municipal use takes place outside the river’s drainage basin.The first real change to the Colorado came in 1900 when the Imperial Land Company started diverting water from the river to the Imperial Valley for agricultural purposes. In 1905 the diversion canal was overwhelmed by the rivers’ spring flood and the river changed course and flowed into the Salton Sink for a year and created the Salton Sea. As the Imperial Valley boomed and became an important farm area, more and more water was diverted. By 1920 the other six states that share the Colorado River drainage basin became concerned that California might claim the entire flow of the river, and set out to assert their own claims. In 1928 the Colorado River Compact was signed. This compact divided the entire flow of the Colorado among the seven states. Mexico got nothing, and no provision was made for leaving anything in the river (in 1945 Mexico was allocated 1.5 million acre-feet in return for limiting Mexican diversions on tributaries of the Rio Grande). The quantity of water allocated to each state was based on then current and potential usage and ten years of flow data from the period shortly before the compact was signed. According to the data available at that time, the average annual flow was 17.5 million acre-feet. California got the largest share at 4.4 million acre-feet annually and Nevada the smallest at 300,000 acre-feet.
Until 1936 and the completion of Hoover Dam there was no storage capacity and no regulation of the river’s annual flow. Since 1936 a number of other dams have been built, including Glen Canyon Dam. Between them, Lakes Mead and Powell, backed up by Hoover and Glen Canyon Dams respectively have a storage capacity of about 60 million acre-feet. This volume equates to some four years of the total normal average flow of the river. During both the 1950’s drought and the filling of Glen Canyon Reservoir in the 1960’s the surface level of Lake Mead fell substantially, but no impact was felt by downstream users because Arizona and Nevada were using only a small portion of their allocations.
In the year 2000 the idea that the Colorado River could be completely consumed and unable to deliver its legal allocations seemed far-fetched. But in 2001 the current drought began and 2002 saw the lowest flows measured since record keeping began: just 25% of normal run-off. The level of Lake Mead fell precipitously and water managers began to take notice. With the exception of two very wet years, the drought that began in 2001 is still with us. The flow during the 2013 water year, which ended September 30, was 35% of average and the second lowest on record. The 2012 water year wasn’t much better with about 45% of average flow.
By 2005, it was apparent that the drought on the Colorado was not going away soon and the States and the Department of Interior’s Bureau of Reclamation, which manages the river, realized that changes to the compact were needed and began work on something called the Quantification Settlement Agreement, which was signed in 2007. This agreement laid out a framework for allocating water based on volume in storage and identified specific Lake Mead levels for the categories of surplus, normal condition, phase1 shortage, phase 2 shortage, etc. It also stipulated that except during times of surplus no State could take more than its legal allocation. The only state really affected by this stipulation was California, which had been diverting more than 5 million acre-feet as opposed to its 4.4 million acre-foot allocation.The phase 1 shortage level for Lake Mead is 1075 feet above mean sea level. The lake surface currently (November 1, 2013) stands at 1104 feet above sea level and, barring a very wet winter, is expected to fall by about 25 feet by November 2014. This will mean the Bureau of Reclamation will be very close to declaring a shortage, which will require Arizona and Nevada to reduce their diversions from the river below their full allocations.
Starting in 2002 Las Vegas, which uses almost all of Nevada’s allocation, initiated a water conservation program, modest at first but ultimately quite aggressive. It has reduced Nevada’s consumptive use of Colorado River water from 330,000 acre-feet per year to 235,000 acre-feet per year. During this period the population of Las Vegas grew by 400,000 people. This is a remarkable accomplishment.
Approximately eighty percent of the Colorado’s water is used for irrigation. Major conservation efforts in that area are much more difficult, for a variety of reasons. First is cost; agricultural water is cheap, only a few dollars per acre-foot (about 326,000 gallons), due to the subsidies associated with federal water projects. Secondly, in order to thrive, plants need a certain minimum volume of water. In the hot summers of the interior deserts of California and Arizona that is a lot, about 5 acre-feet per acre per year, enough water to cover each acre of farmland to a depth of 5 feet if applied all at once. In addition, since there is a significant amount of salt in water from the Colorado (about 1 ton per acre-foot of water) which remains behind in the soil when irrigation water either evaporates or is transpired by plants, enough water must be applied to the soil to flush the salt through the soil into a drain system. The Salton Sea persists because it receives agricultural drain water from the Imperial and Coachella Valleys and the Mexicali Valley in Mexico.
Nearly a century ago Colorado River authorities made crucial decisions based upon inadequate information and naive assumptions. We are left with an overly-complex system further complicated by Western water law that says, first in time, first in right. Straightening out this tangle is a huge challenge. But under the duress of drought small changes are being made. It is in the interest of the three Lower Basin States, Arizona, California and Nevada plus Mexico to keep the water level in Lake Mead higher than 1075 feet above sea level so that there is not a declared shortage. Hence, there are several agreements in effect that allow conserved water to be stored in Lake Mead for later use. Prior to these agreements the situation was “use it or lose it.” There was no incentive to conserve water.
Based on current knowledge and projections the jobs of those charged with meeting the demands for Colorado River water will become increasingly difficult. We know from tree ring data that pre-historic droughts in the Colorado Basin have lasted as long as thirty years and that the twentieth century was the wettest century in the last two thousand years. Projections of future climate change suggest a drier, warmer climate with greater extremes in this region. We also know from recent experience that river flows are influenced by the previous year(s) precipitation because the soil acts as a sponge and the perennial flows are dependent on the level of saturation of that sponge. A “normal” year preceded by a dry year will have decreased river flows because part of the “normal” year precipitation will be consumed in re-saturating the soil sponge.
Is there any reason for optimism? Yes, I think there is, because we are starting to see some cooperation between the major municipal water purveyors. And Mexico is now partner in the discussions. But the 800-pound gorilla in the room is agricultural use. So far, the irrigation districts– speaking for farmers–haven’t shown much appetite for change. A drying, warmer climate will increase agricultural water demand. At some point we are going to have to re-consider how we use the water of the Colorado, an increasingly scarce and valuable resource.
John Hiatt, a desert activist living in Las Vegas, Nevada, is a member of the CNRCC Desert Committee and is a board member of Friends of Nevada Wilderness.
Appreciating the Subtleties of Joshua Tree National Park
Mark Butler patrolled the winding mountain trails of Yosemite National Park’s backcountry as a National Park Service Wilderness Ranger fresh out of high school. It was a life changing experience for Butler, who was captivated by the beauty of Yosemite, the challenge of the work, and the satisfaction he gained from helping people explore remote wilderness. For 33 years after that summer job, Mark went on to serve the National Park Service in an incredibly diverse array of jobs ranging from maintenance worker, carpenter and utility system operator. He also worked as a physical scientist, environmental compliance manager, and Chief of the Division of Project Management at Yosemite National Park, before finally moving to his current position as Superintendent of Joshua Tree National Park.
“The different positions I’ve held have given me the ability to understand a wide variety of interests and concerns that come from park partners, visitors and staff,” reflected Butler. “Because of this broad perspective, I can work to promote partnerships, reconcile differences between park divisions, and provide balanced leadership.” Joshua Tree National Park has benefited from Butler’s exemplary leadership since he was appointed Superintendent in February 2011.
Superintendent Butler enjoys Joshua Tree National Park’s historic and cultural sites like the Key’s Desert Queen Ranch and the Wall Street Mill. He also finds the ecology of the Mojave/Sonoran Desert transition zone fascinating and is amazed by the diversity and beauty of the park’s oases. He is also impressed by Joshua Tree’s outstanding recreational opportunities and its reputation as a world-class climbing destination.
“As a rock climber, I have really enjoyed the rock formations in the Wonderland of Rocks,” says Butler. “But what’s really incredible about Joshua Tree National Park is that because it has such an open landscape hikers can explore almost anywhere, providing that they are well prepared and respectful of the desert ecology.”
One highlight during Superintendent Butler’s tenure at Joshua Tree National Park was a tour he gave to then Secretary of the Interior, Ken Salazar, to Cap Rock and Hidden Valley. There the Secretary developed a connection with Joshua Tree National Park’s fragile and intense desert landscape. Following this tour, Butler arranged for the Secretary to hear from Basin residents, and local families of active duty Marines, about the importance of the park. “Hearing Basin residents and families express their appreciation for the park was very inspirational,” recalls Butler. Another memorable occasion was an evening hike to White Tank with his wife, Cathy. “There was a full moon rising and we were in awe of the beauty of the desert,” says Butler.
Superintendent Butler thinks that one of the most important resources of Joshua Tree National Park is the ecological diversity of the transition zone between the Colorado and Mojave Desert portions of the park. The park’s vast Joshua Tree forests are also iconic and unique.
“One of the things that I find most interesting about Joshua Tree National Park is the subtleness of the place. On the surface it looks very harsh and very threatening, but when you look at it more closely, you can really discover a tremendous amount of fragility and beauty,” says Butler. “At first glance people think the desert is a harsh, barren and lifeless landscape, but in reality, it’s not. I really think that all park visitors can benefit greatly by attending a park interpretive program or a Desert Institute class to be introduced to and learn more about the desert. This will help them begin to understand and appreciate it.” Butler believes that because there is general lack of understanding about the desert, there has been a long history of threats to Joshua Tree National Park.
“One of the key challenges facing the park comes from the increasing level of large-scale urban and industrial development occurring adjacent to the park’s boundary,” said Butler. Development along the park’s boundary is a concern because it can lead to fragmentation and disruption of wildlife habitat and wildlife migration corridors, resulting in increased levels of genetic isolation among the park’s desert dwelling animals, like mountain lion, coyote, bobcat, bighorn sheep, mule deer and numerous varieties of insects, arachnids, and birds. Development immediately adjacent to Joshua Tree National Park may also be a significant factor in how the park responds to climate change, especially if wildlife corridors that give animals room to roam in order to find food, water, shelter and mates are impeded. Butler concludes that because of these ongoing threats it will be very important for the park to continue to work proactively with all communities on its boundary and within the region to encourage land use and development policies that can help protect the park.
“I think that so much of what has threatened the Joshua Tree National Park in the past is the consequence of people not having visited and experienced its wonder,” says Butler. “A majority of the visitors to the park quickly become desert lovers who appreciate the uniqueness of the landscape and are interested in seeing it protected. They are a key part of the solution by ensuring that this place is preserved and protected for present and future generations.”
Seth Shteir is California desert senior field representative for the National Parks Conservation Association.
So It’s Back to Court Once Again To Protect The Majestic Algodones Dunes
The Algodones Dunes, also known as the Imperial Sand Dunes, is North America’s largest active sand dune formation, covering about 200,000 acres in the southeastern corner of Imperial County and barely dipping into Mexico. It provides unique habitat for many imperiled species including the Peirson’s milk vetch (federally threatened), desert tortoise (federally and state threatened), Algodones Dunes sunflower (State endangered), flat-tailed horned lizard (imperiled), several dozen invertebrates that live nowhere else on earth, and the Colorado Desert fringe-toed lizard, which was petitioned for protection under the Endangered Species Act in July 2012. The east side of the Algodones Dunes intercepts the sparse rainfall runoff coming from the Chocolate Mountains to the east, resulting in rich pockets of desert woodland oases that are refugia for numerous migrating birds, burrow deer, and other desert animals.
A relict of the ancient Lake Cahuilla, which dried up after the Pleistocene, is the sand source for the modern day Algodones Dunes. The Salton Sea now covers this former sand source, so little “new” sand is being added. Yet the wind still blows, and effectively it is moving the dunes to the southeast at about a meter per year. Most of the Dunes are public lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). The Algodones Dunes are a National Natural Landmark and is also considered an Outstanding Natural Area by the BLM.
As much as the Algodones Dunes are an endemic plant and animal hotspot, they are also a mecca for off-road vehicles. During the prime reproductive and growing seasons of the late fall, winter and early spring, up to 200,000 people in off-road vehicles descend upon the Algodones Dunes, most of which are ‘open’ to ORVs. Only 16% of the area is federally designated as wilderness – a designation that does not allow for any motorized access. The Algodones Dunes has also become notorious for off-road mayhem, which results in human deaths annually.
In 2000, Sierra Club joined the Center for Biological Diversity, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), and Desert Survivors in legally challenging management of species protected under the federal Endangered Species Act in the California Desert Conservation Area (CDCA). As a result of that lawsuit, in order to protect the Peirson’s milkvetch and other species, three closures to off-road vehicles were agreed upon between the conservation groups, BLM, and the off-road vehicle groups. They were put in place until the BLM revised the Recreation Area Management Plan (RAMP). These areas include a large central closure of approximately 48,000 acres, a small closure at the north end of the dunes near Mammoth Wash, and a very small closure south of Interstate 8 (which bisects the dunes). Each of these areas was identified for protection of the Peirson’s milkvech. In all, the existing wilderness coupled with these closures, which have been in place since 2000 protected 54% of the landscape from off-road vehicles. The remaining 46% remained open to ORVs.
In 2003, the Center for Biological Diversity, Sierra Club, and others successfully challenged a Bush Administration RAMP that re-opened the approximately 50,000 acres of closures. Also in 2003, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposed critical habitat protection for the Peirson’s milkvetch on over 52,000 acres, but in 2004, ultimately designated only 21,800 acres. By 2006, federal court rulings had kept the closures in place, while directing the BLM to again revise their RAMP. The rulings also directed the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to revise the critical habitat designation for the Peirson’s milkvetch. By 2009, the court was satisfied with the paltry 12,105 acres of critical habitat that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service had designated for the Peirson’s milkvetch. Finally, in 2012, the BLM released a final RAMP, which re-opened all of the closures – the largest conservation rollback in the California deserts in the last 10 years. It fails to protect all of the Peirson’s milkvetch critical habitat, and it fails to consider a limitation on the number of vehicles on the Algodones Dunes at any one time. The final decision for this ill-conceived RAMP was issued in 2013.
Not only does the flawed RAMP put a long list of imperiled species back in harm’s way, but it is also a blow to sustainable energy planning in the California Desert Conservation Area. Just two days prior to the release of the final decision on the Algodones RAMP, the BLM had assured the public it would take meaningful measures to off-set the impacts of large-scale renewable energy projects in the California Desert Conservation Area. Clearly, reopening previously protected habitat for rare species in an iconic National Natural Landmark to destruction by fossil-fuel guzzling and emission-spewing vehicles misses the mark on every count.
Plants and animals are not the only ones to suffer. Sadly, Imperial County, where the Algodones Dunes are located, has some of the worst air quality in the nation. Dust, also known as particulate matter or PM10, is kicked up by the off-road vehicles as they speed through the Algodones Dunes. Off-road vehicles are also not required to comply with California’s stringent vehicle emission requirements. Once airborne, the small dust particles and exhaust from the off-road vehicles drift into the adjacent communities and exacerbate health related diseases such as asthma in both children and adults.
So the Center for Biological Diversity, Sierra Club, Desert Survivors, and PEER are once again challenging the BLM in court over this faulty plan. The dazzling beauty, the unique plants and animals, and the local community all deserve a more balanced approach to managing the Algodones Dunes, not one that exacerbates air quality problems and destroys rare plants and animals.
Ileene Anderson is a biologist and Public Lands Desert Director for the Center for Biological Diversity. She has worked on Algodones Dunes conservation issues for over 15 years.
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