Monday, September 8, 2014

Time for Desert Communities to Take PRIDE

The Daily Press and residents of the Victor Valley in the western Mojave Desert are issuing a PRIDE (People Ready to Improve the Desert Environment) challenge to address the many facets of blight that are evident in the region.   As a kid playing in the open desert across the street from my Victorville home in the 1980s and 90s, I would find trash dumped by residents too lazy or cheap to responsibly dispose of tires, furniture and other refuse. 

I have written before about the need for desert communities to respect themselves and surrounding wildlands, in part by minimizing our impact on desert habitat and keeping both the desert and our cities clean.  The lack of respect by some leaves an impression for all to see, but how long we tolerate the mess is ultimately up to all of us.  In a single hour, my sister and I were able to fill five large bags  of trash that we removed from a small patch of Joshua tree and pinyon juniper habitat in the western part of the Victor Valley.  Not long after that, I heard about a couple of other organizations closer to the Yucca Valley that were committed to volunteer clean-ups of our desert.  Most recently, I was inspired by Death Valley Jim's initiative to clean-up some public lands near Barstow and Yermo that have been trashed by disrespectful users.

So it is refreshing to see community leaders in the Victor Valley taking notice, and refusing to tolerate the mess left by a few.  Most recently, Daily Press editor Steve Hunt kicked off a series to showcase both examples of blight, as well as evidence of folks taking pride in the community. 

Here are some of my own photos to showcase some of the messes I have unfortunately come across during my travels in the desert:

I came across this heap of illegally dumped trash and a discarded boat in the middle of what was otherwise a beautiful stretch of the western Mojave Desert between Palmdale and El Mirage, and just south of Edwards Air Force Base.


I got up early one morning in December 2012 to photograph sunrise in some Joshua tree woodland area in western Victorville, and had to do a lot of creative framing to keep trash out of the photos.  Eventually I gave up and made trash the subject.

The typical beautiful desert sunrise cast striking colors on the horizon, but you have to look past the trash dump.

There were several different trash piles scattered about in close proximity.  I could not help but wonder whether they were all from the same person - perhaps returning with more trash every other year - or from different people.  Either way, I was frustrated that I could not enjoy a walk in the desert without stumbling upon their mess.

On a hike in the Juniper Flats area above Apple Valley I came across a common sight - a balloon caught in the shrubs.  I have pulled at least a dozen balloons and many more plastic bags from the desert, even from areas as remote as the Silurian Valley and near the Cady Mountains. If you buy a helium-filled balloon, please do not release it.


The desert is a beautiful place, and those that have the privilege to live in the desert should take pride in their community and the desert wildlands that surround us. 


The morning sun hits yucca in bloom near Apple Valley and Juniper Flats.
As others have done, you can always set out and clean up your neighborhood or your favorite patch of desert.  Every twenty minutes or hour that you spend walking and picking up trash will add up over time, and eventually we can defeat the apathy that has allowed blight to flourish.   For organized events, I am sure you can stay tuned to the Daily Press, or check out the Environmental Awareness Day event at the Mall of Victor Valley on October 17 for opportunities to get involved.   On September 27, there are several events scheduled for National Public Lands Day across southern California, and Death Valley Jim has helpfully listed the details on his website


Sunday, September 7, 2014

BLM Reviewing Route 66 Management in California

Route 66 is an important artery providing access to California's Mojave Desert.  Like the two-lane  "Outback Highway" that runs mostly north/south through the region, Route 66 provides east/west access to stunning desert vistas still mostly unharmed by man, giving visitors a chance to share a common experience with past generations.  The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and California Historic Route 66 Association are now developing a Corridor Management Plan (CMP) that seeks to align county and Federal efforts to protect this historically significant corridor. 

A map from the California Historic Route 66 Association website shows the portion of the Route 66 corridor that will be reviewed for the Corridor Management Plan.  From Needles to just west of Barstow is about 160 miles of history, culture, and beautiful desert scenery.
I am excited about the potential for the CMP to make a visit to the California Desert a richer experience, with more opportunities for folks to learn about and appreciate the history, culture and environment.  When it was first established, Route 66 was part of the evolution of the "faster is better" mindset and engineering that has robbed people of their ability to experience the Mojave, but the "Mother Road" has since been overtaken by interstate highways where people zoom along at much higher speeds to get from point A to Z without appreciating the rest of the alphabet.  The CMP provides an opportunity to slow folks down, and build appreciation for our cultural and natural heritage in the Mojave.

Meetings for the CMP thus far have been focused on revitalizing the tourism values along the corridor, which obviously overlap with, and have implications for our desert conservation efforts.  Based on a review of meeting and planning materials posted online, here are some of my thoughts on the CMP and protecting the desert:

Visual Resources

The CMP hopefully will take a look at BLM's Visual Resource classifications along the corridor, which currently do not reflect the same value that visitors behold in the open desert landscape along Route 66.  Most of the corridor is rated Visual Resource class III, one of the lowest ratings that subsequently allows for substantial industrial-scale destruction of the landscape (I have previously written about the problem with visual resource management in the desert - the creosote scrub habitat along  Route 66 typically scores a "low" or "moderate" in BLM's scenic quality ratings).  Adjusting the Visual Resource classes along the Route 66 corridor should acknowledge one of the Mojave's most beautiful qualities - largely natural, unbroken vistas that provide us with an escape from the ubiquitous  maze of billboards and strip malls from which we hail.  Open scenery where we can watch thunderstorms bubble up over mountains and lumber across valleys, and the shadows of sunset and sunrise dance across miles and miles of open desert floor. 

This photo was taken from Kelbaker Road in the Mojave National Preserve, although the Route 66 corridor lies in the Fenner Valley between the Old Woman Mountains in the distance, and the Middle Hills in the mid-ground.  Industrial development anywhere in the region is likely to spoil a wilderness experience across a wide swath of the desert.

Lights Out (or Low) - Preserving Access to the Night Sky

Revitalization of businesses catering to visitors and outdoor lighting should adhere to dark sky principles to avoid competing with the dazzling night sky.  The night sky is also part of the visitor experience.  Almost everyone I talk to on the east coast about the desert camping experience talks about seeing the stars.  When we're in the city, you're lucky  when you can see a handful through the light pollution.  In the desert, the vastness of the landscape during the day is replaced by an even more vast scenery of stars and galaxies at night.

Teaching Moments

The CMP will also evaluate opportunities for interpretive roadside stops to tell the story of the road, and the geology and ecology of the Mojave Desert.  This is important.  Although travelers on Route 66 probably have an appreciation for the lore and mystery of Route 66 and the desert, I would not be surprised if many visitors still see the landscape as a "wasteland."  The biodiversity of the desert is not always obvious if you do not know what you're looking for, so some interpretive materials and events that educate visitors about the desert will go a long way toward disabusing people of the "wasteland" notion.

Take it Easy - Low-Impact Travel

Speeding vehicles and wide highways can impede wildlife movement across a landscape, as we have seen with Interstates 40 and 15.  Route 66 should be a road for folks that want to slow down and enjoy the scenery, not a high speed dash to Las Vegas, and the recent Transportation meeting by the Ad Hoc Planning Committee considering the CMP discussed how to repair and revitalize this section of Route 66 without encouraging excessive speed.  I am glad this is being considered, since any modifcations that encourage faster travel is only going to erode the good qualities of the corridor.

Part of the charm of Route 66 is that it's not a dangerous, fast, and enormous highway.  The section above is between Goffs and Needles, south of the Mojave National Preserve.
This section of Route 66 crosses over 128 wooden trestle bridges nearly 80 years old that lift the road above desert washes.  The CMP will discuss rehabilitation of these structures and ensuring proper drainage.  If the plan is looking to maintain the integrity of the desert, it should ensure that any modifications preserve the ability of wildlife to move across or under the road.  Maintaining a desert substrate - vegetation and soils that support and encourage the movement of wildlife - underneath the bridges would be helpful.

One suggestion highlighted in materials for an Ad Hoc Planning Committee mentions the potential to add bike trails along the road.  This would be an excellent opportunity to encourage visitors to see and experience Route 66 and the surrounding desert in a different way.

An Extended Stay

The desert can often be a daunting place for the uninitiated, but some visitors may want to stay long enough to see a night sky, go for hikes in the wilderness areas along the Route 66 corridor, or use Route 66 as a base camp to explore beyond Route 66 into the Mojave National Preserve.   The BLM could do better to establish, maintain, and publicize recreation opportunities that will encourage more folks to experience this part of the desert.  For example, finding hikes in the wilderness areas along Route 66 would require some fairly sophisticated Internet searches, combined with some cross-referencing from BLM maps to Google Maps to figure out where to go without getting lost.  And once you arrive, you probably will not find any well-marked trail heads or trails. 

Once you finish a hike, you may not feel like driving all the way back to the city, or you'd like to reward yourself with a view of the sunset, the howl of coyotes at night, or a beautiful sunrise.  BLM could create or identify primitive camp sites in the area, and provide better access to materials that direct visitors to these sites and encourage responsible, leave-no-trace use.  Although I prefer to camp in a quiet corner of the desert (away from the road), not everybody has the will or ability to camp - or maybe they need a stepping stone to get them to that point.  The County could incentivize the revitalization of some low-impact tourism accommodations - such as opening up motel space at the old Roy's Motel and Cafe.  This would provide more people with an opportunity to extend their visit beyond the couple of hours they may spend driving down the road during a day trip. 

Monday, September 1, 2014

Overriding Considerations

What is human society doing differently today that suggests we learned from our extermination of one of the most abundant bird species on the planet?  On the 100th anniversary of the passing of the last passenger pigeon - a bird once so plentiful that migrating flocks of billions of birds darkened the skies - I would argue that we have developed ever more complex language, thought and institutions to justify similar destruction of the environment.  So many people participated in the extermination of the passenger pigeon, and we were left with no good reasons for the bird's disappearance.  Instead of learning from this chapter and recognizing the intrinsic value of wildlife and our moral imperative to protect biological diversity, we have simply found other ways to explain and excuse our actions.

Yes, we can point to the Endangered Species Act, Migratory Bird Treaty Act, and other environmental protection efforts that seek to mitigate our impact on ecosystems and wildlife, but even these are failing to hold back the destructive tide.  In a bold attack on conservation, the Obama administration's chief wildlife official Dan Ashe told conservationists that we “must accept a world with fewer wolves, salmon, and spotted owls,” and "a world with less biodiversity.”   We are building a concept of the future that requires the removal of others species to make way for a human society that barely respects its own kind.

A Wild Baseline in Decline

Orion magazine published an essay this summer on the extinction of the once ubiquitous passenger pigeon.  The writer of the piece, Christopher Cokinos, takes a look at why we even bother to remember the passenger pigeon.  Cokinos draws on a book by Joel Greenberg, A Feathered River Across the Sky, that describes the awe inspiring presence of the passenger pigeon, and Cokinos notes that:
"...every generation uses its own experience to create a baseline for what the state of the natural world is. I have seen 10 million Mexican free-tailed bats coming out of a cave in the Texas hill country...And the largest group of birds I have ever seen were maybe 400,000 snow geese in Rainwater Basin in Nebraska, south of the Platte River...Both of these aggregations would have been dwarfed by flocks of [passenger] pigeons...The biological wealth of this continent has been eroded significantly to maintain our wealth."
You could argue that the extinction of the passenger pigeon was remarkable for the scale of extermination that took place.  But what is more concerning to me is society's rate of participation - you could not just blame big industry, an oil spill, or climactic changes.  Society could not have killed billions of birds if there were not hundreds of thousands of volunteers for the cause - people who carried their own reasons or excuses for taking the birds, and who joined an aggregate of ignorance and selfishness in shooting these birds from the sky and clubbing them on the ground.

When flocks of passenger pigeons appeared overhead in the late 1800s, people would fire into the sky to partake in a joyful slaughter.  Greenberg's book is full of historical accounts of people firing from rooftops and balconies, and out of their windows to take their toll on flocks passing overhead.  Commercial interests would follow the pigeons, identify their roosting locations, and kill them wholesale to be shipped back to cities for food, or ship thousands of live birds by rail for pigeon shooting contests.  While it can be said that many of the birds were killed for food, the scale of slaughter that took place surpassed what we could justify for sustenance and veered into the realm of gluttony and greed, and the death of so many birds for "sport" is most illustrative of the fact that human society truly has no good excuse for why we killed off such a magnificent species.

And when Martha - the last surviving passenger pigeon - sat alone in her cage at a Cincinnati Zoo in the early 1900s, visitors would throw sand and rocks at her to get her to move, apparently unhappy with a visit to the zoo to see such a subdued specimen.   We took far more than we needed from this species until its last breath, and human society showed the worst of its ignorance and dispassion upon realizing this bird would never grace the skies again.  Some people believed that the flocks of pigeons must have died in the Pacific Ocean as they "dashed to freedom in Asia," or veered off course in dense fog or windstorms, according to Greenberg's historical research.  For all of the people that ran to grab their rifle at the first sight of passenger pigeons and made it their goal to kill as many of the birds as possible, they still could not believe that they were the cause.

An Indirect Slaughter

As individuals, most of us are not rushing outside with our rifles anymore.  We are rarely participating in the direct slaughter of our wild baseline.  Instead, we have installed layers of insulation between ourselves and our impacts, and we use the economy and our marketplace to justify tragedy.  We are no less culpable for these impacts, but we now have the language and institutions to blame forces and organizations beyond our individual control, even though these institutions are perpetuated by the aggregate of our individual participation.

Our society takes more than it needs; more than is sustainable.  And much of what we think we "need" is as absurd as what the people shooting passenger pigeons thought they needed.  As the Los Angeles Times noted, "the electrical output of more than four nuclear power plants is needed around the clock" to keep set-top cable TV boxes running in millions of homes.  For what? So we can record our favorite TV show when we're not home.   We take water from the Colorado River to irrigate alfalfa fields in one of the driest corners of the southwestern United States so that the crop can be shipped to China to feed dairy livestock.  Subsidies for corn crops have mowed down prairie and woodlands so we can put that ingredient in everything from fuel to snack chips, to soda beverages, at the expense of growing crops that are of actual nutritional benefit.  We have replaced thousands of square miles of rain forest with palm oil plantations so we can consume things like Oreos, microwave popcorn, and crackers.  Elephants are assassinated for ivory tusks that are made into trinkets.  Much of our economy could be characterized as ludicrous in the way it functions, and the desires that it satiates.

Overriding Considerations

One hundred years after we finished off the passenger pigeon (and plenty of other species),  we have now learned how to rationalize the extinction through the excuse of "economic growth."  Federal and State agencies entrusted with protecting natural treasures are granting industry more and more permits to destroy wildlife and landscapes in the name of economic development without applying any filter that preserves our moral imperative to protect biological diversity; if it makes money, it is usually worth the sacrifice.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service tells us we must accept a world with less biodiversity.  Changes to the Endangered Species Act will make way for more landscape-scale destruction of wildlands and keep rare wildlife on the brink.  The misguided Breakthrough Institute claims such sacrifices are necessary to bring the world up to the United States' middle class standard of consumption, making the assumption that such an exceptional standard is sustainable and that wildlands and wildlife are only on this planet to serve humans.  (The Breakthrough Institute also assumes the global economy will allow a Utopian level of economic equality across borders when upper and middle classes are currently being built on the exploitation of others - through sweatshops, industrial agriculture and resource extraction).

Policymakers may view conservation through a prism of consumption and economic growth, but they cannot undo the fact that we are putting more and more natural treasures at risk.   This is where the language of trade-off has shamed environmental thought into accepting sacrifice.  "Overriding considerations" is a term applied in environmental law, but I think it is also a term that best describes the way we as individuals and as a society rationalize environmental tragedy. The near-term want for material consumption justifies costs we would not otherwise accept, and the costs are easier to accept because they are more distant.

It is not my intention to be cynical or pessimistic.  There is good work going on in communities to protect wild places, community health,  and previous generations of activists have left us with plenty for which we should be grateful.  But, in my view, trends remain negative and we are becoming further entrenched in an unsustainable path.  Although corporations and governments - which are often quicker to respond to each other than their consumers or customers - have the most control and influence over how we treat our environment, we should not lose sight of our individual participation in this paradigm.  Every opportunity we take to reduce our consumption is another vote that encourages a more sustainable direction.  If a couple thousand people rallied to reduce our impact on the passenger pigeon in the year 1880, maybe we'd still have a flock of passenger pigeons criss-crossing the skies over our eastern forests.  It may be too late for the passenger pigeon, but it's not too late for so many other species that are just as deserving as us to live on this planet.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Sacrifice Upon Tragedy

When I hear people compare avian mortality levels at wind and solar projects to the number of birds killed by domestic cats, I hear an insensitive and illogical comparison.  One death toll used to excuse the tolerance of even more deaths.   If that argumentation is how we plan to reason through future human actions, we are in for a very depressing and morally-deprived future. 

To illustrate just how illogical this argumentation is, imagine telling Amnesty International that its efforts to advance peace are meaningless because the United States saves more lives through war.  There is only one correct path, and if you're not supportive of that path, you're wrong and your input is not welcome.  Or imagine someone arguing that examining and criticizing the loss of life in Ferguson is not worth discussing because there are bigger issues at hand.  That's what the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) broadcast on Thursday in a subsequently retracted Tweet (below).



A broader arena of injustice and crisis certainly exists, but our limited attention span and slogan-filled political system sometimes encourages un-principled comparisons and trade-offs.  However, that should not excuse us from working on the local level to advance sustainability and care for the living beings around us.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Article Exposes Shallow Depth of Energy Discussion

An article grossly mischaracterizing the current state of research into avian mortality at BrightSource Energy's Ivanpah Solar project quickly exposed the difference between rally-around-the-flag cheerleaders and those seeking to ensure renewable energy follows a sustainable path.  The piece by David Baker published on the San Francisco Chronicle website notes that only 321 dead birds were found at BrightSource Energy's Ivanpah Solar project from January to June, and casts doubt on the work of scientist Shawn Smallwood who estimated that Ivanpah may kill as many as 28,000 birds per year; Smallwood's estimate was cited in an Associated Press story bringing attention to the incineration of birds at Ivanpah.  David Baker's piece regurgitates a BrightSource Energy press release, and the Associated Press article cites testimony by Smallwood, a scientist who has been published in dozens of peer-reviewed publications and reports.

The Chair of the California Democratic Party's Environmental Caucus RL Miller endorsed Baker's shallow article, and she describes the Associated Press article citing Smallwood's estimates as the work of "solar bashing Repub[lican]s."  In a Tweet from his personal account, Paul Rauber - Senior Editor of the Sierra Club's Sierra magazine - characterized environmentalists' concern about avian mortality at solar plants as "hysterical."




Neither Baker, RL Miller, nor Paul Rauber appear to be familiar with the avian mortality research conducted by Smallwood and other wildlife experts, and apparently prefer discussions about sustainability to be polarized and devoid of critical thought.  What Baker and his short-sighted fans ignore is the fact that in any search for wildlife - whether the specimens are dead or alive - you have to consider how much area was searched, and searcher error.  When looking for dead animals, you also have to consider how many carcasses may have been removed or substantially dismantled by scavengers before they could be found by searchers.  Even though BrightSource Energy's press release notes that only 321 birds have been found dead at the Ivanpah Solar project site, the company's own testimony before the California Energy Commission accepts that the death toll is likely much higher.  That is because the 321 dead birds found so far only reflect incidental discoveries or nascent search efforts that may only examine a fraction of Ivanpah's 5.6 square mile footprint, and ignore most of the desert surrounding the project where injured birds may land and die beyond the boundaries of search efforts.

Smallwood notes that the 28,000 number is at the upper range of his estimate, but his research illustrates that the impacts are likely to be significant regardless of the specific number.  As he testified earlier this month:
“If I’m overestimating by even five percent, so what? These are huge numbers, absolutely huge numbers. And what we’re doing when we argue over these numbers, which are based on hugely uncertain adjustment factors, we’re also glossing over all the chicks that were left in the nests, and these birds died in spring. Glossing over all the social interactions, all the ecological interactions. We’re just arguing over numbers which really don’t reflect on all the impacts.”
While BrightSource has attempted to downplay these numbers by comparing them to other sources of human-caused bird mortality, the fact is that BrightSource's projects can have enormous impacts on regional and rare bird populations in addition to these other human impacts.

If Earth's true enemy is human society's unwillingness to pursue a sustainable path, Rauber and Miller prefer to narrowly focus the war on fossil fuels.  In the conduct of that war, they are ready to enact the renewable energy version of the Patriot Act.  Their discussion of environmental issues is not about protecting ecosystems or biodiversity, it is about winning the war.  And even though we share an enemy in the fossil fuel industry, we differ in the manner in which we are willing to conduct the war and the sacrifices we are willing to make.  Rauber has previously characterized bird deaths at wind facilities as "trivial," and used the Sierra Club's official Twitter handle to endorse an article excusing wind industry impacts because they have not surpassed the impact of domestic cats.  Rauber's own article on the wind industry's impacts on birds then downplayed the significance of these impacts and overestimated the industry's willingness to self-enforce corrective measures.

RL Miller previously derided Los Angeles Times reporter Julie Cart as the "most anti-solar reporter in the mainstream media" because Cart's articles were "indulging Republicans" by examining the impacts of utility-scale solar on remote desert lands.  In other words, the enemy is reading the newspaper, so don't you dare take a critical look at our leader's policies.  That may make sense in a political campaign where 30 second soundbites and slogans win votes, but we'll need a higher level of discussion if we're going to figure out how to safeguard the environment.

Climate change is an urgent threat to the environment, but it is a product of our careless and unsustainable consumption.  If our solution to climate change continues to promote unsustainable consumption, and ignore ecosystem destruction and the erosion of biodiversity, then what have we learned from this challenge? 

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Bridges for Bighorn

Despite efforts to protect desert habitat in the southwest, major highways criss-crossing the desert are isolating wildlife into smaller pockets and hindering genetic exchange necessary to keep species healthy and resilient.  Desert bighorn sheep are not exempt from this impact; they may be agile and swift, but they are no match for several lanes of speeding cars and semi-trucks, and they tend to shy away from culverts that cross under highways.

Biologists have already noticed that desert bighorn sheep populations in the Mojave and Colorado Deserts are becoming genetically isolated because the region's major highways - such as Interstate 15 and Interstate 40 - and other human developments pose a barrier to sheep movement from one range to another.  According to a 2005 article in Ecology Letters,  biologists found "a rapid reduction in genetic diversity (up to 15%)" among desert bighorn sheep resulting from "as few as 40 years of anthropogenic isolation. Interstate highways, canals and developed areas, where present, have apparently eliminated gene flow. These results suggest that anthropogenic barriers constitute a severe threat to the persistence of naturally fragmented populations."

Habitat Connectivity Not a Priority

This should be a familiar story, but if it doesn't ring a bell, a more widely known example can be seen in the Los Angeles basin, where the Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, and local news stations have covered the impact of highways and human development on the mountain lion population in the Santa Monica Mountains.  The mountain lions there are at increased risk of inbreeding and becoming less healthy because each population is too small and largely cut off from other populations by highways that are too dangerous to cross.

If you have been following human developments in the desert then you probably know that the process for permitting new transportation, mining and energy projects often puts habitat connectivity in the back seat.  Case in point, the Department of Interior approved construction of three giant solar projects and a new rail line in the Ivanpah Valley;  biologists have identified Ivanpah as important to tortoise genetic connectivity.  Other species at risk include the Mohave ground squirrel; this species' home range has declined as a result of urban and agricultural sprawl, and now solar and wind energy projects threaten to further fragment its habitat in the western Mojave. 

For the tortoise, industrial developers that destroy intact habitat often promise mitigation money that can go toward enhancing what is left of the desert tortoise's range.  However, these mitigation funds usually go toward closing illegal off-highway vehicle routes or putting up fencing along highways.  This does not really address the problem of connectivity.  Industrial projects that pump precious groundwater and threaten natural springs promise funds for "guzzlers" - man-made water sources for bighorn sheep.  These water sources may support a pocket of bighorn sheep, but do not address the ability of sheep to move across the range and connect with other populations increasingly isolated by industrial and transportation projects.

Although the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan (DRECP) process will supposedly consider how to protect key wildlife corridors, the DRECP has been delayed significantly from its original timeline and it is not yet clear if the final plan will favor conservation or industry.  It is also unlikely that the DRECP will properly fund wildlife overpasses for bighorn sheep without sacrificing desert habitat.  The practice so far is that money for habitat improvement is provided by corporations paying to mitigate or offset the damage they are doing when they build new energy projects or housing developments.  This is a vicious cycle; we need to destroy habitat in order to improve habitat somewhere else.  Funding for conservation and wildlife should not depend solely on the destruction of these very treasures.

Bighorn Bridges

One measure that can be taken regardless of the DRECP may particularly benefit the desert bighorn sheep.  Looking back at the mountain lion example, wildlife officials are considering building a wildlife overpass across Interstate 101 in Agoura Hills to connect two mountain lion ranges currently severed by the highway.  Bighorn sheep have benefited from this approach outside of California.  In Arizona, the Game and Fish Department and Department of Transportation sponsored three wildlife bridges for bighorn over U.S. Highway 93.  As you can see in the video below, bighorn have been using the bridge to get across the highway safely, leading to a healthier and more resilient ecosystem.


The reason sheep need overpasses is evident in research submitted for the 2013 International Conference on Ecology and Transportation which monitored 199 bighorn sheep approaches to culverts passing under U.S. Highway 93.  Only four of the sheep crossed a culvert, and the rest turned back.  Sheep passed under large span bridges (probably less frightening than the narrow and low culverts), "but at significantly reduced frequencies relative to overpass utilization." Large underpasses might be more valuable for others species like desert tortoises, and could be wide enough to accommodate a natural desert substrate, such as plants to provide shade and cover for a range of different wildlife.

Research could identify the most critical choke points to determine where wildlife overpasses could best benefit the desert bighorn sheep population.  One potential linkage previously mentioned on this blog could be built near the Soda Mountains and Zzyzx Road, although Bechtel wants to bulldoze desert there, instead.   Perhaps another wildlife overpass could be built over Interstate 40 between Ludlow and Essex to help connect bighorn in the Mojave National Preserve to populations further south.  Locations for an overpass would need to be identified based on an understanding of sheep movement habits, where populations currently exist, or where they could be restored.

These camera-trap photos included in the Arizona Game and Fish Department evaluation shows bighorn sheep using wildlife overpasses along U.S. Highway 93.

We have identified a big problem - wildlife cannot move in meaningful numbers across our highways.  Some wildlife cannot cross above the highway, and some culverts that cross under our highways are not suitable for all species, like bighorn sheep.  We know that the problem is not going to change because our highways will not be going anywhere.  If anything, our transportation corridors will only be widened as we add lanes or rail lines to accommodate more traffic.  For all of the billions we invest in our roads, highways, and parking lots - with full attention paid to making sure we can fly along at 70 miles per hour, or find that perfect parking space at the grocery store - we are overdue on our obligation to repair some of the shortsighted and selfish damage we have done to the desert ecosystem.  Bridges for bighorns, or more underpasses for other wildlife would be a good step.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

How Much is Too Much Heat for Birds?

In testimony submitted in advance of California Energy Commission (CEC) evidentiary hearings scheduled for the end of this month, the CEC staff estimates that the impact of heated air above BrightSource's proposed Palen hybrid solar and natural gas project may result in as much as 2.5 times more bird deaths than at the BrightSource's Ivanpah hybrid project (I use the term "hybrid" because Ivanpah will burn nearly 525 million standard cubic feet  of natural gas, annually.  Palen will burn at least 728 million standard cubic feet of gas, annually.  Unlike photovoltaic solar projects, BrightSource's power tower design needs fossil fuels to warm up the boilers that also convert the sun's energy into electricity).
This peregrine falcon was found emaciated at BrightSource Energy's Ivanpah solar project and later died. Note the clear singing of the feathers likely caused by the intense heat generated by BrightSource's mirrors. Photo from the National Fish and Wildlife Forensics Laboratory report submitted to the California Energy Commission.
BrightSource has argued that birds are only at risk of death from solar flux (air heated by the concentration of the solar mirror field) in the air space close to the power tower where the heat is most intense.  CEC staff, however, assesses that birds are at risk from injury or death as soon as they enter the flux field, and that they do not need to reach the area close to the tower to be at risk of death.  At issue is the examination of dead birds found at BrightSource's Ivanpah project; some dead birds' feathers were singed by the heat, while others were found with no singing at all.  Early analysis suggested that the birds with singed feathers died of solar flux exposure, and dead birds with non-singed feathers may have died from collision with mirrors.  However,  CEC staff argues that dead birds with non-singed feathers found further from the power towers are also dying from exposure to heat from the solar flux based on the distribution of dead birds throughout the solar field.   This would mean that thermal stress alone, not just the singing and impairment of feathers, is leading to bird deaths.  The reason this is significant is because this would further underscore the increased threat BrightSource's technology poses to wildlife compared to other types of solar facilities, where collision is the primary threat.

The graphic above submitted by CEC staff compares the size of the Palen and Ivanpah solar towers and solar flux fields (Palen is the larger tower and field).  The color coding represents the relative thermal intensity at the Palen project; the intensity of the heat increases closer to the power tower.  CEC staff assesses that birds are at risk upon entering anywhere in the solar field and that the risk increases closer to the power tower, whereas BrightSource maintains that birds are only at risk of death or injury in the cone close to the tower (the darker red shading).

Shawn Smallwood, an expert on bird mortality at renewable energy projects, submitted testimony that the Palen hybrid project could incur as many as 10,787 birds per year (at an 80% confidence interval) based on preliminary data from Ivanpah and a study of bird mortality at the smaller Solar One in Dagget during the 1980s.  Mr. Smallwood also critiques BrightSource's proposal to use various technologies in an attempt to deter birds from coming close to the Palen project, such as the use of lasers, balloons and an untested means of disorienting the magnetic field of birds.  As Mr. Smallwood notes, "[a]nother approach with just as much sense would be to cut off one or both wings of birds so that they cannot fly at all."  Discussion at the evidentiary hearings this month may also examine whether or not BrightSource can curtail operations of the Palen project during peak bird migration months or when migratory birds are nearby, but BrightSource itself has pointed out that this would be infeasible because financially and because the project takes too long to power down.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Coolwater-Lugo Transmission Line: A Horse Following the Cart

Southern California Edison (SCE) is suggesting that interconnection of Abengoa's Mojave Solar project is the primary reason it needs to build the nearly 75 mile Coolwater-Lugo transmission line through the Lucerne Valley, according to the Daily Press, even though Abengoa told the California Energy Commission (CEC) and Bureau of Land Management (BLM) in 2010 that these transmission lines would not be necessary.   Misrepresenting the need for new transmission lines during the CEC and BLM review of the project would have allowed Abengoa to downplay the costs and environmental impacts associated with approving the project.  The Coolwater-Lugo transmission line is likely to cost ratepayers at least 509 million dollars, and bring bulldozers and transmission towers to mostly undisturbed desert.

Without the Abengoa Mojave Solar project as an excuse,  SCE probably could address other distribution needs - such as relieving the transmission bottleneck at Kramer Junction - by upgrading existing lines, or building new lines along existing transmission corridors.  Alternatively, Abengoa could sell its electricity to LADWP, which also has transmission lines near the project site.

Abengoa Gambling on Transmission Approval

Abengoa may have misrepresented the need for new transmission when it sought approval from the CEC and BLM for its Mojave Solar project.  According to a document submitted by SCE to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) in 2011, Abengoa told SCE that it may not be able to complete the Mojave Solar project without SCE's new transmission line.   However, in documents submitted to the CEC in 2009 and 2010, Abengoa identified upgrades to existing transmission lines as sufficient to deliver power to Pacific Gas and Electric (PGE) - the northern California utility that agreed to purchase power from the Mojave Solar project - and specifically denied that the Coolwater-Lugo line would be necessary (see page 92 of the CEC's final decision - PDF).  Although power from the Abengoa Mojave Solar project is destined for northern California, SCE owns the transmission lines that will connect the project to the grid.
Abengoa and SCE on Record

The screenshot below is from page 92 of the CEC's September 2010 final decision on the Abengoa Mojave Solar project (AMS).  It states that Abengoa (the applicant) told the CEC that it could meet its obligations to PGE without the Coolwater-Lugo transmission line. 


The next two screenshots are from  a Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) document recording statements from SCE and Abengoa that the Mojave Solar project is not viable without the Coolwater-Lugo transmission project.  This document was issued by FERC in March 2011, but based on submissions from SCE and Abengoa from late 2010 and early 2011.  FERC ruled in favor of allowing SCE to pass along the costs of the Coolwater-Lugo transmission line to ratepayers.  The Coolwater-Lugo line is the delivery "network upgrade" portion of the "South of Kramer" project.  (FERC Docket EL11-10)

 

Abengoa filed the following document with the CEC in early 2010, indicating that despite transmission congestion, it could proceed with the Mojave Solar project by upgrading existing transmission infrastructure.


According to the CEC's final decision from September 2010,  the CEC acknowledged that the Abengoa Mojave Solar project would create a burden on existing transmission lines.  The document indicates - based on testimony from Abengoa - that the company chose "alternative 2," which would mostly involve upgrades to existing transmission infrastructure and participating in a congestion management program that would curtail the project's electricity delivery when existing lines were overloaded.

Probably because Abengoa signaled that the Coolwater-Lugo transmission line was not necessary for it to meet its obligations to PGE, the BLM also issued a Finding of No Significant Impacts (FONSI) approving the solar project's interconnection to existing infrastructure.   The BLM did not analyze the impacts of building the Coolwater-Lugo line when it reviewed the Abengoa solar project, but now SCE is suggesting the line is necessary to deliver the power to PGE.  If Abengoa had identified the Coolwater-Lugo line as necessary when the project was initially being reviewed, the new transmission line would have been analyzed as a connected action.

It is likely Abengoa will have to curtail generation during peak periods if the Coolwater-Lugo line is not built, but Abengoa knew this when it testified to the CEC that no new transmission lines were necessary to build the project.  If the company was gambling that the Coolwater-Lugo transmission line would be approved, it seems to have done so at great risk to its investors and was disingenuous toward California and Federal stakeholders.

At this point, SCE's use of the Abengoa Mojave Solar project as a key reason for building the Coolwater-Lugo transmission line is inconsistent with facts presented to the CEC and BLM.  SCE should either eliminate the Abengoa Mojave Solar project from its rationale (correcting the record with FERC and the California Public Utilities Commission), or Abengoa should petition the CEC to amend its initial approval.  Most likely, neither will happen and SCE will pass along millions of dollars of cost to ratepayers that was never supposed to be necessary, and destroy pristine desert.

Other Alternatives Available

SCE has examined eight other action alternatives to building the Coolwater-Lugo line, but it has ruled all of them out because they do not meet its objectives or would cost the utility company too much money.  SCE cited the need to connect the Abengoa Mojave Solar project as a reason to rule out six of the eight alternatives.

Alternatives include re-wiring existing transmission lines between Kramer Junction and Hesperia (Lugo), installing new transmission lines and towers between Kramer Junction and Hesperia, or building new transmission lines between Kramer Junction and the Antelope Valley (Llano).  All of these options could utilize existing transmission corridors.

SCE also claims the need to connect other unidentified large renewable energy projects as a reason to build the Coolwater-Lugo line.  At this time, there are no solar energy zones in the vicinity of Lugo and Coolwater substations.  Any wind projects between northern Lucerne Valley and Barstow would likely conflict with the Departments of Defense's flight and radar testing programs.  Moreover, the Granite Wind project near Apple Valley was cancelled, probably in part because of golden eagles in the area.  So, other than the Abengoa Mojave Solar project, there is no identifiable and timely need to connect other large projects to the grid.

SCE also cites the need to serve electricity to a growing Victor Valley as a reason to build the project.  Although SCE does not offer specifics, it also does not suggest alternatives for meeting this demand.  Smaller solar projects are being built in the Victor Valley that can serve local demand, and energy conservation and rooftop solar can help offset the need for an expensive new transmission line.

Abengoa and SCE are betting on a regulatory system that prioritizes industry profit above the need for a sustainable and smart renewable energy future.  Abengoa seems to be confused regarding its need for new transmission lines, and SCE seems eager to profit from new transmission lines.  Hopefully California and Federal regulators will wise up and demand a more efficient and sustainable alternative to the Coolwater-Lugo transmission line.

If Abengoa cannot deliver the project's energy to PGE, then perhaps it can re-negotiate its power purchase agreement and sell the energy to the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP).  According to documents submitted by Abengoa to CEC in 2009, a 500kv LADWP transmission line runs next to the Abengoa Mojave Solar project and interconnection could occur without the extensive (and expensive) upgrades required by SCE and PGE.