Places Archives: News » United States » California

Visit the global News » United States » California archives for posts from all DGR sites.

Oppose the Palen Solar Project—Comments Due December 11

     by Basin and Range Watch

Ask for the No Action Alternative
Copy letter at the end of this newsletter and send to BLM

November wildflowers blooming on the proposed site of the Palen Solar Project

The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and Riverside County, CA are seeking comments by December 11th, 2017 on the Draft Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement/Review for the proposed Palen Solar Project – a 4,200 acre (6.5 square mile) photovoltaic solar project.

EDF Renewable Energy has applied for a Right-of-Way (ROW) from the BLM to construct a 500 megawatt (MW) solar photovoltaic facility and 6.7-mile single circuit 230 kilovolt generation interconnection (gen-tie) transmission line on public lands near Desert Center, Riverside County, California.

The project site has a long history of attempts to develop large scale solar energy in its boundaries. It started out in 2009 as a concentrated solar thermal parabolic trough project and later in 2013 as two solar power towers. In both cases, the developers withdrew their proposals.

The project would destroy a large tract of desert sand dune habitat in the California Desert. The habitat is home to many sand dwelling species of plants and animals. The area has cultural significance to Native American Tribes. The project would have significant visual impacts to the landscape and will be visible from many adjacent conservation areas.

Dust and desertification from the construction of the Stateline Solar Project, San Bernardino, California (photo, BLM 2014)

The BLM is deciding on the proposed plan and 3 alternatives. The Proposed Action would develop a 500 MW solar facility of 4,200 acres of BLM land. The Reduced Footprint Alternative would develop a 500 MW project on 3,100 acres of land. It would avoid a major wash and this is the BLM’s preferred alternative. The Avoidance Alternative would develop up to 250 MW on 1,600 acres of land. This alternative follows the conservation recommendations of the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan and avoids much of the sand transport corridor, but would still develop and impact a major portion of this habitat.

Reasons to Support the No Action Alternative:
The Project Would Have Big Visual Impacts

The BLM has designated the region as the lowest possible Visual Resource Management classification. VRM Class IV – with the objective “to provide for management activities, which require major modification of the existing character of the landscape.” But the project site is highly visible from the Palen-McCoy Wilderness Area, the Chuckwalla Wilderness Area and the Palen Dunes Area of Critical Environmental Concern which are all managed as VRM Class I and II. These classes have objectives of “preserving the existing character of the landscape” and “retaining the existing character of the landscape”.

The project would also be visible from the southeast portion of Joshua Tree National Park.

While the Chuckwalla Valley has seen much large-scale energy development in the last decade, the area around the Palen Dry Lake is less visually impacted due to surrounding topographic features. Development of a large-scale solar facility would change that.

Desert Sunlight Solar Project: The living desert on these public lands has been transformed to a single use solar project.

The Project Would Impact Cultural Resources

Colorado River Indian Tribes have long opposed the construction of large solar projects located in the region. Many projects have resulted in cultural artifacts and human remains being removed by construction activity. The landscapes themselves are sacred to the tribes and the industrial construction of existing projects have damaged several thousand acres.

In 2012, several artifacts were dug up and destroyed during the construction of the Genesis Solar Project located along the Ford Dry Lake just east of the proposed Palen Solar Project.

The Project Would Impact Native Plants, Animals and important Sand Dune Habitat

The project is located on a sand sheet in the Colorado Desert sub-region of the Sonoran Desert. It is home to several species, many specialized to sandy habitats. Several specialized species are found on the dune habitat including the Harwood’s milkvetch and the Mojave fringe-toed lizard.

Mojave fringe-toed lizard on the project site

The Mojave fringe-toed lizard is adapted to fine-grained sand dune environments. It has specialized “fringes” on its toes that allow it to “swim” in sand. The species is found throughout the project site. Fringe-toed lizards often will be seen outside of their core habitat in this region crossing from one dune to another. The project would kill lizards and remove habitat.

Desert Kit Foxes suffered an outbreak of canine distemper during the construction of the nearby Genesis Solar Project in 2011. The Palen Solar Project could remove over 6 square miles of habitat for foxes.

Desert Kit Fox

Lake Effect/Avian Mortality

Several bird mortalities have been detected at many of the large-scale solar facilities that have been built in the last decade. Large-scale solar projects often resemble lakes and this is believed to be a cause of some of the bird mortality that is being detected on projects like the Desert Sunlight Project which is just under 20 miles west of the proposed Palen Solar Project. The hypothesis is that birds are attracted to the polarized light of the panels, but other factors like color may confuse birds into perceiving the panels as water. It is believed that other resources like insect prey and artificial ponds also attract birds. From 2012 to 2016, 3,545 mortalities from 183 species were detected on California solar facilities. Some of these mortalities have been listed species including the the Federally Endangered Yuma clapper rail and Federally Threatened Western yellow-billed cuckoo. Waterbirds such as White pelican and Western grebe have been found dead at solar projects. These projects are very large and only a small percentage of certain projects are surveyed so it is likely that many mortalities are missed because they are taken by scavengers.

The proposed Palen Solar Power Project would be located between the Desert Sunlight Solar Project to the west and the Genesis Solar Project to the east. All three construction alternatives of the Palen Solar Power Project would add significant cumulative additional impacts to the bird mortality of the region. More information on avian solar mortality can be found here.

Large-scale solar projects in the hot desert cause air quality problems. Dust control in hot, arid climates is very problematic. The removal of established vegetation, biological soil crusts and centuries old desert pavement creates opportunities for dust to be airborne every time the wind blows. Not only does fugitive dust create problems for visual and biological resources, it creates issues for public health as well. Efforts to mitigate fugitive dust on large desert regions often fall short.

Coccidioidomycosis (Valley Fever) is a common issue that impacts desert communities when dust is stirred up. Valley fever has been spread by large-scale solar development in desert regions.

The California Independent System Operator (CaISO), California Energy Commission (CEC), and California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) during Renewable Energy Transmission Initiative (RETI 2.0) meetings explain that California now has so much utility-scale solar that the state is over-generating in peak times.

Non-transmission alternatives can solve this problem: distributed battery storage paired with rooftop solar systems could offer peak load shaving. Net metering generators could be paid for the amount of solar energy they store, instead of selling excess back to the grid. Dispatchable technologies could be investigated in this distributed approach, instead of spending billions of dollars on new thousand-mile-long transmission lines. There are new models worth investigating to avoid giant land use costs of utility-scale solar and wind projects. And of course energy conservation and efficiency can help ease peak over-generation. Parking lot structures in California could produce 39,000 MW of solar energy.

Sample Comment Letter to Write BLM

You can email, fax or mail your comment letter by December 11th to:

Bureau of Land Management
C/O Aspen Environmental Group
235 Montgomery Street
San Francisco, California 94104
email: palensolar@blm.gov
Fax: 760-833-7199 or you can comment from this link.

To Whom it May Concern,

Please choose the No Action/No Project Alternative for the following reasons:

The Palen Solar Project would create big visual impacts for the region. A solar project of any size will be visible from two wilderness areas and Joshua Tree National Park. A No Action Alternative would preserve part of the visual landscape in the region.

The Palen Solar Project will destroy Native American artifacts and cultural landscapes. This can not be mitigated.

The Palen Solar Project will impact many native desert species and damage an important and unique sand dune habitat. All 3 development alternatives will remove habitat for Mojave fringe-toed lizard, Harwood’s milkvetch, desert tortoise, kit fox and desert microphyll woodlands. Sand dune habitats are unique and should not be sacrificed.

The Palen Solar Project will produce a “lake effect” which could attract birds and cause death or injury through collision and dehydration. Other recently built solar projects in the region have detected large bird mortality numbers and these include Threatened and Endangered species. Adding an additional 2 to 6 square miles of solar panels will cumulatively add to this problem.

The Palen Solar Project will create fugitive dust. The removal of established vegetation, biological soil crusts and centuries old desert pavement creates opportunities for dust to be airborne every time the wind blows. Not only does fugitive dust create problems for visual and biological resources, it creates issues for public health as well. Coccidioidomycosis (Valley Fever) has been a problem in the region.

The Palen Solar Project will contribute to California’s problem of over-generating large-scale solar energy during peak times. It will also create a need for more unsightly and expensive transmission lines. All of the environmental impacts associated with the Palen Solar Project are not necessary because non-transmission alternatives can solve this problem. Distributed battery storage paired with rooftop solar systems would alleviate this issue. We can meet renewable energy needs in more environmentally friendly ways.

While the Palen Solar Project lies in a Development Focus Area established under the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan (DRECP), it also predates the establishment of the DRECP and the BLM is not committed to following the Development Focus Area recommendations in the DRECP. In this case, any development in the location would create significant environmental impacts for the region.

Thank you
(Your name and info here)

 

Deep Green Resistance Southwest February News Roundup

Protect Pinyon-Juniper Forests Campaign

Will Falk in a Pinyon-Juniper clearcut (Photo by Max Wilbert)

Will Falk in a Pinyon-Juniper clearcut (Photo by Max Wilbert)

Deep Green Resistance and WildLands Defense are advocating for a moratorium on all pinyon-juniper deforestation in the Great Basin and we need your help. Pinyon-juniper forests are being wantonly killed as weeds while their inherent ecological value is summarily ignored. These forests store carbon dioxide, dampen climate change, provide crucial wildlife habitat, protect watersheds, and have helped humans survive in the Great Basin for millennia. A moratorium gives us time to marshall our resources to put this destruction to a permanent end.

See for yourself the destruction of Pinyon-Juniper forests and then join the fight.

Sign this petition with us and ask BLM to stop clearcutting pinyon-juniper forests

2/3/2016 BLM & the Ranching Industry: a History of Collusion
1/5/2016 Pinyon-Juniper Forests: BLM’s False Claim to Virtue
12/13/2015 Pinyon-Juniper Forests: The Oldest Refugee Crisis
12/1/2015 Pinyon-Juniper Forests: An Ancient Vision Disturbed

Follow our Protect Pinyon-Juniper Forests campaign on Facebook for more updates.

Sacred Water Tour

Sacred Water Tour, 2014 (Photo: Max Wilbert)

Sacred Water Tour, 2014 (Photo: Max Wilbert)

The SNWA water grab is a prime example of how civilizations (cultures based on cities, as opposed to cultures based on perpetual care of their landbases, without resource drawdown) inevitably destroy the planet. A bloated power center, ruled by the ultra-rich and served by an underclass of poorly-paid workers, bolstered by bought-and-paid-for politicians (see Harry Reid) and misused public tax dollars,  reaches out and takes what it wants from the countryside.

One of the developers who wants the water grab has described the Mojave desert around Las Vegas as “flat desert stuff.”  They call living land a wasteland to justify its continuing plunder.  To indigenous peoples—Shoshone, Paiute, and Goshute—the land and water are sacred.

Anyone who respects land and visits this place will fall in love with it.  That’s the purpose of the Sacred Water Tour, an annual gathering organized by Deep Green Resistance for the past three years.  In coordination with local activists and indigenous people, the public is welcomed every Memorial Day weekend to tour the region.

Join us in May of 2016!

Resistance Radio: Derrick Jensen interviews Max Wilbert about the SNWA water grab
2015 Sacred Water Tour: Sacred Water Under Threat
2014 Sacred Water Tour: Report-Back
Groundwater Pipeline Threatens Great Basin Desert, Indigenous Groups
Follow our Stop the SNWA Water Grab campaign page on Facebook for more updates


Regional News

Spring Creek Canyon, Utah

Spring Creek Canyon, Utah

Spring Creek Canyon – What makes this canyon and the surrounding Hurricane Cliffs so special is its geographic location at the transition of the Colorado Plateau and Great Basin geologic provinces, giving rise to a unique collection of plant species.
Deep Green Resistance Colorado member Deanna Meyer interviewed on Resistance Radio – Recently she has been involved in advocating for the forests in her area as well as the rapidly disappearing prairie dogs throughout the mid-west. She elieves that the strategies and tactics of people who care about the living planet must shift from asking nicely to defending those they love by any and all means necessary.
More Than Words – The race to save a Northern Paiute dialect that’s down to a handful of speakers reveals what we stand to lose when a language dies.
Tell the BLM that you care about wildlands in southwestern Utah (petition)
Bighorn Sheep Die-off in Montana Mountains, Nevada
A Biocentrist History of the West – Wildlife Services, a branch of the Department of Agriculture, acts as “the hired guns of the livestock industry.”
USDA’s Secret War on Wildlife (video)
Even more about Wildlife Services and how they torture dogs and kill endangered species
A New Study Suggests Even the Toughest Pesticide Regulations Aren’t Nearly Tough Enough – The industrial agriculture system is violent. It murders humans and so many other beings – entire living communities. Policy-makers such as those in this article covering the UCLA study – people who maintain the validity of this systematic murder – are culpable and must be held accountable.
How big oil spent $10m to defeat California climate change legislation
In Utah, a massive water project is gaining ground – The project could divert 86,000 acre-feet from Lake Powell to the retirement community of St. George.
Massive Gas Pipeline Project Endures in Texas – Even in oil and gas friendly Texas, there is a growing outcry about the egregious abuse of landowners rights’ carried out by the company behind a new gas pipeline.
In Parts of the West, Grazing Cattle Are Making the Drought Worse
Lost Bones, Damage and Harassment at Ancient Sacred Site

Follow the DGR Southwest Coalition Facebook page for more news.


Deep Green Resistance News Service Excerpts

Derrick Jensen Interviewed About Deep Green Resistance, “Transphobia,” and More

Recognizing Greenwashing comes down to what so many indigenous people have said to me: we have to decolonize our hearts and minds. We have to shift our loyalty away from the system and toward the landbase and the natural world. So the central question is: where is the primary loyalty of the people involved? Is it to the natural world, or to the system?

What do all the so-called solutions for global warming have in common? They take industrialization, the economic system, and colonialism as a given; and expect the natural world to conform to industrial capitalism. That’s literally insane, out of touch with physical reality. There has been this terrible coup where sustainability doesn’t mean sustaining the natural ecosystem, but instead means sustaining the economic system.

Police Intimidation: From Dalton Trumbo to Deep Green Resistance

Federal Bureau of Investigation and Department of Homeland Security agents have contacted more than a dozen members of Deep Green Resistance (DGR), a radical environmental group, including one of its leaders, Lierre Keith, who said she has been the subject of two visits from the FBI at her home.

DGR, formed about four years ago, requires its members to adhere to what the group calls a “security culture” in order to reduce the amount of paranoia and fear that often comes with radical activism. On its website, DGR explains why it is important not to talk to police agents: “It doesn’t matter whether you are guilty or innocent. It doesn’t matter how smart you are. Never talk to police officers, FBI agents, Homeland Security, etc. It doesn’t matter if you believe you are telling police officers what they already know. It doesn’t matter if you just chit chat with police officers. Any talking to police officers, FBI agents, etc. will almost certainly harm you or others.”

Derrick Jensen: To Protect and Serve

So here’s the question: if the police are not legally obligated to protect us and our communities — or if the police are failing to do so, or if it is not even their job to do so — then if we and our communities are to be protected, who, precisely is going to do it? To whom does that responsibility fall? I think we all know the answer to that one.

If police are the servants of governments, and if governments protect corporations better than they do human beings (and far better than they do the planet), then clearly it falls to us to protect our communities and the landbases on which we in our communities personally and collectively depend. What would it look like if we created our own community groups and systems of justice to stop the murder of our landbases and the total toxification of our environment? It would look a little bit like precisely the sort of revolution we need if we are to survive. It would look like our only hope.

Derrick Jensen: Calling All Fanatics

I’ve always kind of hated that quote by Edward Abbey about being a half-hearted fanatic (“Be as I am — a reluctant enthusiast . . . a part-time crusader, a half-hearted fanatic”). Not so much because of the racism and misogyny that characterized some of his work. And not even because of the quote itself. But rather because of how that quote has been too often misused by people who put too much emphasis on the half-hearted, and not nearly enough emphasis on the fanatic.

The fundamental truth of our time is that this culture is killing the planet. We can quibble all we want — and quibble too many do — about whether it is killing the planet or merely causing one of the six or seven greatest mass extinctions in the past several billion years, but no reasonable person can argue that industrial civilization is not grievously injuring life on Earth.

Given that fact, you’d think most people would be doing everything they can to protect life on this planet — the only life, to our knowledge, in the universe. Sadly, you’d be wrong.

Beyond Flint, Michigan: The Navajo Water Crisis

Recent media coverage and spiraling public outrage over the water crisis in Flint, Michigan has completely eclipsed the ongoing environmental justice struggles of the Navajo. Even worse, the media continues to frame the situation in Flint as some sort of isolated incident.

Madeline Stano, attorney for the Center on Race, Poverty & the Environment, assessed the situation for the San Diego Free Press, commenting, “Unfortunately, Flint’s water scandal is a symptom of a much larger disease. It’s far from an isolated incidence, in the history of Michigan itself and in the country writ large.”


Deep Green Resistance: a quote from the book

At this moment, the liberal basis of most progressive movements is impeding our ability, individually and collectively, to take action. The individualism of liberalism, and of American society generally, renders too many of us unable to think clearly about our dire situation. Individual action is not an effective response to power because human society is political; by definition it is build from groups, not from individuals. That is not to say that individual acts of physical and intellectual courage can’t spearhead movements. But Rosa Parks didn’t end segregations on the Montgomery, Alabama bus system. Rosa Parks plus the stalwart determination and strategic savvy of the entire black community did.


2014-02-28-build-and-strengthenPlease join us or provide material support to make Deep Green Resistance possible.

Lake Mead watch: six inches from the level that triggers cutbacks

Editor’s Note: This originally appeared on High Country News.  

Deep Green Resistance chapters across the Southwest have declared water protection and justice our primary focus.  Join us in dismantling the systems that would leave our planet dry and lifeless.

If water curtailments go into effect, which states are most vulnerable, and why?

Sarah Tory, June 17, 2015

Record rain across much of the West in May has provided Lake Mead with a much-needed boost – alleviating concerns about possible cutbacks in water deliveries from the nation’s largest reservoir. But a month of rain does not solve Mead’s falling water levels. For nearly two decades, the reservoir, which straddles the Arizona-Nevada border, has been shrinking due to prolonged drought and over-allocation. Mead hasn’t been full since 1998 at 1,221 feet above sea level and in the past 15 years alone, it has dropped 135 feet. Now it’s 37 percent full and just six inches away from reaching the 1,075-foot threshold that triggers cutbacks in deliveries for the three lower basin states – Arizona, Nevada and California – all of which depend heavily on Colorado River water stored in Lake Mead. (The trigger point doesn’t apply to the Upper Basin states of Wyoming, Colorado, Utah and New Mexico.)

But as long as the surface level is at least 1,075 feet above sea level when crucial measurements are taken in January 2016, those cutbacks will be avoided. If not, the Secretary of the Interior will declare a shortage in Lake Mead and the curtailed deliveries, along with other water rationing measures, will go into effect early next year.

http://www.hcn.org/articles/what-really-happens-if-lake-mead-stays-below-the-1-075-ft-mark/www.thebathtubring.weebly.com
On June 15, the Bureau of Reclamation predicted that Lake Mead will be at 1,081.58 feet by the end of 2015, above the benchmark level that would trigger water curtailments. That’s an improvement from last month when the Bureau was predicting Mead would be at 1,075.96 feet, said Rose Davis, a spokeswoman for the bureau’s Lower Colorado Region.

So, what happens to the Lower Basin states if the Interior Department declares an official shortage in Lake Mead? According to the Colorado River Interim Guidelines, a 2007 agreement to address water shortages:

Arizona will face the biggest curtailment of annual water deliveries from Lake Mead. Its 2.8 million acre-feet will be cut by 370,000 acre-feet (one acre-foot is enough to supply two average homes for a year), a 13 percent reduction. Farmers who rely on water piped east by the Central Arizona Project, whose water rights are the most junior, will be the hardest hit. Farmers along the western edge of the state who use water from the main stem of the Colorado River won’t be affected by the first round of curtailments. Neither will tribes, industrial users or major cities. Overall the short-term economic impact will be slight, said Michael Cohen, an expert on water use in the Colorado River basin at the Pacific Institute, a water-policy think tank. That’s because Arizona has stored more than 3 million acre-feet of water underground, providing farmers with a back-up supply that will soften the impacts of a shortage.

Next in line is Nevada, which faces a 13,000-acre-feet reduction to its usual 300,000 acre-feet delivery from Lake Mead, a 4 percent cut.

California, meanwhile, can keep withdrawing its full allotment from Lake Mead. This dates back to the negotiations during the ’60s between Arizona and California over the Central Arizona Project, a massive aqueduct that pumps water 336 miles from the Colorado River into central and southern Arizona. To get the project approved by Congress, Arizona needed California’s help. But California saw that at some point there might not be enough water to go around, so it decided to support Arizona’s bid only if Arizona agreed to take more junior water rights.

But California’s deal isn’t as sweet as it sounds. A recent report called ‘The Bathtub Ring’ from graduate students at the University of California, Santa Barbara in conjunction with the Western Water Policy Program, shows that, although California is exempt from the first round of curtailments, 13 million people in Los Angeles are still among the most vulnerable. That’s because the state currently consumes its full Lake Mead allotment and also relies on bonus water it gets through efficiency measures. The program that allows them extra water in exchange for conserving will be put on hold when curtailments go into effect. That means L.A.’s Metropolitan Water District will lose its ability to draw on 662,000 acre-feet annually of surplus water.

Declining water levels in Lake Mead have created its trademark 'bathtub ring' around the edge of the reservoir. Bill and Vicki T/Flickr

Nevada will be largely immune to the first round of delivery cuts from Lake Mead. Though the Southern Nevada Water Authority, which provides for nearly 2 million people in Las Vegas, gets 90 percent of its water from the reservoir, the state gets credit for water it reuses. So if a provider pumps 5,000 acre-feet from the reservoir, but then treats 3,000 acre-feet and returns the treated water to Lake Mead, it’s only on the books for 2,000 acre-feet. Even with the curtailment, the state’s return flow credit program allows Nevada to keep its consumptive water use below its allotted amount.

Should the water levels continue to drop below the 1,075 foot mark, as they are expected to in years to come, more cuts will be required. Below 1,025 feet, the Lower Basin states will have to negotiate new water shortage guidelines.

Sarah Tory is an editorial fellow at High Country News.

Nine States Report Record Low Snowpack

By Cole  Mellino, for Ecowatch

California gets most of the attention in drought news coverage because so much of the state is in exceptional drought—the highest level—but 72 percent of the Western U.S. is experiencing drought conditions, according to the latest U.S. Drought Monitor data.

usdrought
72 percent of the West is experiencing drought conditions and 25 percent is in extreme or exceptional drought. Photo credit: U.S. Drought Monitor

When California’s snowpack assessment showed that the state’s snowpack levels were 6 percent of normal—the lowest ever recorded—it spurred Gov. Brown’s administration to order the first-ever mandatory water restrictions. California’s snowpack levels might be the lowest, but the Golden State is not the only one setting records. A new report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) finds that nine states reported record low snowpack. The report states:

The largest snowpack deficits are in record territory for many basins, especially in the Cascades and Sierra Nevada where single-digit percent of normal conditions prevail. Very low snowpacks are reported in most of Washington, all of Oregon, Nevada, California, parts of Arizona, much of Idaho, parts of New Mexico, three basins in Wyoming, one basin in Montana and most of Utah.

Only high elevation areas in the Rocky Mountains and Interior Alaska had normal or close to normal snowpack levels. “The only holdouts are higher elevations in the Rockies,” said Garen. “Look at the map and you’ll see that almost everywhere else is red.” Red indicates less than half of the normal snowpack remains. Dark red indicates snowpack levels are less than 25 percent of normal.

Much of the West is in red, which indicates snowpack levels are below 50 percent of normal. Photo credit: USDA NCRS
Much of the West is in dark red, which indicates snowpack levels are below 25 percent of normal. Photo credit: USDA NCRS

And not only is the snowpack drastically reduced in many states, but it’s melting earlier now, too. “Almost all of the West Coast continues to have record low snowpack,” said David Garen, a hydrologist for USDA’s National Resources Conservation Service. “March was warm and dry in most of the West; as a result, snow is melting earlier than usual.”

Historically, April 1 is the peak snowpack. But this year, the peak came earlier because there was very little snow accumulation in March and much of the existing snow had already melted. Streamflow will be reduced even sooner in spring and summer, leaving reservoirs—already well below average in many areas—that much more depleted, the report finds. As of April 1, reservoir levels are below average in at least five western states: Arizona, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon and Utah,” according to Reuters. That doesn’t include California, which NASA scientist Jay Famiglietti said has about a year’s supply of water in its reservoirs.

A Slow-Motion Colorado River Disaster

The high water mark for Lake Mead is seen on Hoover Dam and its spillway near Boulder City, Nev. After back-to-back driest years in a century on the Colorado River, federal water managers are announcing a historic step to slow the flow of water from a massive reservoir upstream of the Grand Canyon to the huge Lake Mead reservoir behind Hoover Dam near Las Vegas. (Julie Jacobson / Associated Press / April 15, 2013)

The high water mark for Lake Mead is seen on Hoover Dam and its spillway near Boulder City, Nev. After back-to-back driest years in a century on the Colorado River, federal water managers are announcing a historic step to slow the flow of water from a massive reservoir upstream of the Grand Canyon to the huge Lake Mead reservoir behind Hoover Dam near Las Vegas. (Julie Jacobson / Associated Press / April 15, 2013)

Original article by Craig Mackey, Los Angeles Times


On Aug. 7, the head of the Southern Nevada Water Authority called for federal disaster relief to address the consequences of water scarcity in the Colorado River system. On Friday, the Bureau of Reclamation announced it would be forced to cut the flow of water into Lake Mead in 2014 to a historic low. Dominoes may now fall from California to Washington, D.C.

A nearly century-old body of agreements and legal decisions known as the Law of the River regulates water distribution from the Colorado River among seven states and Mexico. Two major reservoirs help collect and distribute that water. Lake Mead disburses water to Nevada, Arizona, California and Mexico. Mead gets its water from Lake Powell, which collects its water from Utah, Wyoming, Colorado and New Mexico. For the first time, Lake Powell releases will fall below 8.23 million acre-feet of water, to 7.48 million acre-feet, potentially reducing allotments down the line and setting off a cascade of significant consequences.

First, if recent dry weather in the Colorado River basin continues, declining water levels in Lake Powell could cut off power production at Glen Canyon Dam as early as winter 2015, affecting power supply and pricing in six states.

Second, less water coming into Lake Mead from Lake Powell may bring the level in Mead below an intake pipe that delivers water to Las Vegas by spring 2015. The Southern Nevada Water Authority has been racing to construct a deeper intake pipe by the end of 2014.

By winter 2015, Lake Mead also may dip to a level that would result in a major decline in power generation at Hoover Dam. That would affect the supply and cost of power for consumers in Nevada, Arizona and California. Southern California uses below-market-rate power from Hoover Dam to pump water to its cities and farms; if the region was forced to buy market-rate electricity from elsewhere, the price of water for Southern California consumers would surely rise.

These Bureau of Reclamation projections prompted Pat Mulroy, general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, to call for federal disaster relief to mitigate the situation. She wasn’t specific about how much money would be needed or how it would be used, but disaster relief could go toward completing Las Vegas’ new intake pipe project, or for things like paying farmers to temporarily fallow their fields as a means to get more water in the reservoirs, or to finance a controversial new groundwater project in the region. Mulroy referenced Superstorm Sandy and said: “Does a drought not rise to the same level of a storm? The potential damage is just as bad.”

If anything, Mulroy is understating the situation. What’s at stake on the Colorado River, in addition to increased power and water costs, is drinking water for 36 million Americans, irrigation water for 15% of our nation’s crops and a $26-billion recreation economy that employs a quarter of a million Americans.

“Disaster relief” implies temporary measures, but the drought in the Southwest is not an isolated incident; it is a long-term reality. We need strong measures to head off further disaster, not just aid to help address the aftermath.

Demand on the Colorado River’s water exceeds supply. According to a 2012 Bureau of Reclamation study, average river flow could decrease by nearly 10% by mid-century. Carrying on with business as usual by continuing to build new diversions from the river and failing to significantly improve the efficiency with which we use the river’s water is akin to rebuilding wiped-out beach homes after a hurricane and then beckoning another storm to come in and destroy those homes again (requiring, of course, another government bailout).

Fortunately, that 2012 Colorado River study determined that urban and agricultural water conservation and recycling, along with market-based measures like water banking, are cost-effective measures that can lead the way to a secure water future for the Southwest. The Department of the Interior has convened a process with the seven Colorado River states and other interests to determine the next steps on water conservation and improving river flows. A report from the group should arrive next year. A robust plan is needed from this process to ensure a successful economic future for the Southwest, or else the dominoes will fall.

Craig Mackey is co-director of Protect the Flows, a network of businesses that advocates for healthy flows in the Colorado River and its tributaries.

Copyright © 2013, Los Angeles Times