Saturday, June 30, 2012

Nevada Lands Bill Would Create Monument, and Encourage Sprawl

Nevada Senators Reid and Heller introduced a bill (S. 3346) on 27 June that would designate a new national monument, but the legislation would also allow the construction of a new transmission line through that monument and give away significant swaths of other public lands to developers and utility companies throughout the southern Nevada region.  The legislation is being touted in the press as a significant conservation bill, but the national monument may only be a sweetener to accompany compromises that will facilitate Las Vegas' continued sprawl into desert wildlands.

Disposal of Public Lands
Residents of southern Nevada have fought for years to establish the Tule Springs Fossil Beds National Monument, and the bill would indeed protect 22,650 acres of the area and transfer that land to the National Park Service.  But the "Las Vegas Valley Public Land and Tule Springs Fossil Beds National Monument Act of 2012"  would provide significant benefit to developers and industry by amending the Southern Nevada Public Lands Management Act of 1998 to expand the amount of public lands available to transfer to private use.  The total number of acres to be added to the "disposal" area is not stated in the legislation, but a study of available maps suggest the amount is in the thousands of acres, including major parcels of mostly intact desert habitat along the western border of the proposed monument, additional lands along the northeastern stretch of I-15, and more parcels of land along the eastern boundary of Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area. Lands within the disposal area are subject to sale to private developers.  Other modifications to the "disposal" boundary in the southern region of Las Vegas are unclear since only one map is currently available.

More Transmission Lines 
To the chagrin of monument proponents, the legislation would let utility companies build a transmission line directly through the national monument.  That proposed transmission line would connect to existing lines near the Harry Allen Generating System and run toward the Pahrump Valley, probably to cater to a glut of solar applications there that threaten to deplete local aquifers and destroy ecologically intact public lands, ignoring the more efficient alternative of distributed generation within Las Vegas' own boundaries.

The bill would withdraw 16 square miles of desert habitat from wilderness study in order to facilitate the approval of another transmission line into eastern Las Vegas from desert wildlands beyond the sprawl.  Once constructed, the transmission line would encourage more industrial development on public lands further from the city, probably including BrightSource Energy's proposal to build the massive "Apex" solar power project next to the Muddy Mountains and Hidden Valley ACEC.

Below, one of the maps accompanying the Las Vegas Valley Public Lands and Tule Springs Fossil Beds National Monument Act of 2012 showing land transfers and designations in the North Las Vegas region:

Fly to Ivanpah, Drive to Vegas
The legislation also turns to the besieged Ivanpah Valley to ask it for yet another sacrifice to make way for the Southern Nevada Supplemental Airport -- also known as the Ivanpah Valley Airport.  The airport would bring Vegas' visitors to a remote swath of desert 40 miles south of the city's downtown area, forcing them to add an 80 mile round-trip drive to their trip.  Congress initially sacrificed public lands to this ill-conceived idea with the Ivanpah Valley Airport Public Lands Transfer Act passed in 2000, which would transfer nearly 10 square miles of desert habitat there to Clark County to build the airport.  The new bill would hand over additional public lands for flood control purposes.

The airport has been fiercely opposed by conservationists over the years, and construction has been delayed as a result of the economic slowdown and a decision to invest 2.4 billion dollars to expand Las Vegas' McCarran International Airport. The McCarran expansion added a new terminal with 14 new gates just minutes from the city's hotels and suburbs, but the city foresees additional expansion of its hotel capacity and suburbs, even though it is running out of water.

[Click image to expand] The proposed Ivanpah Valley Airport would force visitors to endure a wasteful and expensive 80 mile round trip to and from the hotels and the airport.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Massive Wind Project Continues to Consume Mojave

The Alta Wind Energy Center continues to consume and industrialize dozens of square miles of desert habitat in the western Mojave Desert.  The total project area already encompasses over 50 square miles -- nearly 1.5 times the size of Manhattan -- and continues to expand.   Hundreds of wind turbines -- each over 420 feet tall -- require new roads and pads carved into desert soil to supply Southern California Edison (SCE) customers with "guilt free" wind energy.  Don't tell SCE customers that wind turbines require immense amounts of cement, steel and copper to deliver that energy to them, not to mention natural gas "peaker" plants running in the background.   Meanwhile, a UCLA study found that Los Angeles County could meet much of its energy demands with solar panels on rooftops or over parking lots

A single wind turbine pad under construction in the western Mojave Desert, requiring tons of cement, and yet another scar in the land. Photo taken recently by a resident of Mojave, California.
The Bureau of Land Management is now accepting comments on the Draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for the expansion of Alta wind project onto public lands.  You can find more information and submit public comments through the BLM website for the Alta East Wind Project.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

The Most Sought After Wasteland

Many people still entertain the notion that the desert is a "barren" wasteland, devoid of life and human value, as a recent KCET piece points out.  Beyond the obviously erroneous ecological assumptions behind that notion, I am also amazed at how many people portray the desert as an endless resource waiting to be granted utility by human genius.  The fact of the matter is that we have struggled to manage demand for desert resources for decades, and humans -- out of love and ignorance -- have demanded more from the the desert than it can give.  The relatively recent debate over siting renewable energy projects in the desert is just the latest chapter.
As Congress set forth in the Federal Land Policy and Management Act in 1976: "the California desert environment and its resources, including certain rare and endangered species of wildlife, plants, and fishes, and numer­ous archeological and historic sites, are seriously threatened by air pollution, inadequate Federal management authority, and pressures of increased use, particularly recreational use, which are certain to intensify because of the rapidly growing popu­lation of southern California..."
Those demands on the desert--in California and neighboring states -- have grown, compounding the difficulties faced by conservationists, government officials and land managers.  In addition to continued urban sprawl, energy, mining, and agriculture development, millions of people visit the deserts each year for recreation -- off-highway vehicle (OHV) riding, camping, hiking, photography, rockhounding, rock climbing, etc.  The military also places significant pressure on the desert, conducting air and ground training exercises, and testing new technologies, involving the rotation of thousands of soldiers and vehicles through the region each year. Our southwestern deserts are already over-tapped, so we should not be surprised when our demand for desert resources stumbles across another person's or institution's claims.

The recent economic slump may have slowed housing construction, but the trend over the past couple of decades has been one of urban expansion.  NASA and the US Geological Survey released satellite images showing the expansion of the Las Vegas metropolitan area from 1972 until recently.  When watching the video, consider that not only does that sprawl directly displace habitat and wildlife, but requires more water and electricity.


You could probably find similar images for communities in California and Arizona. I know California's Victor Valley in the western Mojave Desert ballooned in size since the early 1980s.  The cities there are now looking to expand their boundaries.  The City of Victorville still seeks to expand its territory by up to 32 square miles, engulfing desert habitat to the north of the city. Los Angeles County and San Bernardino County are also planning a new highway, known as E-220, connecting the Victor Valley and Antelope Valley, with the aim of spurring new industrial and housing developments throughout the western Mojave Desert. Home builders and city officials expect the economy to turn around, and their plan for that eventuality is to keep sprawling.

Agriculture also constitutes a major sprawl across the desert. In the Imperial Valley south of the Salton Sea, well over 700 square miles of desert habitat have been converted for farms, irrigating the land with water from the Salton Sea and Colorado River. Other agriculture concentrations persist along the Colorado River near Blythe and Needles. 

Farm land stretches from the Salton Sea to the border with Mexico in California's Imperial Valley -- a massive zone of desert habitat converted to meet human needs, reliant upon dwindling and stressed water sources.

The Desert Next Door
More people living in the region means more people venturing into the nearby desert habitat that remains.  Known as edge effect, the desert habitat closest to urban development typically sees degradation from various well-intentioned and also illegal uses, ranging from bicycle riding to illegal dumping of garbage.   Growing up in a desert town, I was witness to and contributor to the edge effect. Exploring the desert on our bikes, my brother and I would ride along tracks carved into the desert by off-highway vehicles and often came across illegal trash piles and discarded yard waste. As time went on, much of that desert was eventually bulldozed for more houses.

But it isn't just the immediate neighbors that like to use and abuse the desert. Millions of visitors travel from far away to admire its beauty and pursue other recreational activities.  Joshua Tree National Park attracts roughly 1.4 million visitors each year, with about 90% of them identifying "views without development" as one of the main reasons for visiting, according to a University of Idaho study.  As of 2011, the number of visitors to the relatively newly established Mojave National Preserve hovers between 536,000 and 600,000 per year.  Death Valley National Park visitation climbed from 704,000 in 2007 to over 946,000 in 2011.  Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area outside of Las Vegas attracts over a million hikers, rock climbers, and other landscape admirers each year.

Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area outside of Las Vegas attracts over one million city escapees every year.
According to a Bureau of Land Management presentation to the Desert Advisory Council, nearly 1.28 million people visited the Imperial Sand Dunes in the Colorado Desert region of Southern California in 2010.  Many of the visitors to the dunes came for off-highway vehicle recreation, and many of them camped overnight.  Another popular OHV recreation area in Johnson Valley is estimated to host over 200,000 visitors each year, while other OHV areas at Stoddard Wells, El Mirage, and Ridgecrest keep busy, as well.  In these designated OHV areas, the BLM works hard to manage a host of problems brought on by the popularity of motorized recreation, ranging from vehicle accidents, vandalism, littering, and people ignoring boundaries.

A time elapsed photo shows the head and tail lights of dozens of OHVs at the Imperial Sand Dunes in California. Photo from BLM presentation to the Desert Advisory Council.
The BLM has sought to educate visitors about the need to pick up after themselves before leaving popular recreation sites. The photo above shows some of the garbage left behind by visitors to the Imperial Sand Dunes. Photo from BLM presentation to the Desert Advisory Council.
In addition to dedicated OHV areas like those found at the Imperial Sand Dunes or Johnson Valley, there are thousands of miles of designated OHV routes crossing the Mojave and Colorado Deserts, attracting even more recreational visitors. A court ruled in 2006 that the BLM's analysis of open routes in the west Mojave Desert needed to be revised, finding that there was inadequate law enforcement and management of OHV recreation in the desert, resulting in the degradation of the ecosystem.

War in the Desert
The US military is no stranger to the desert.  In the 1800s that presence was to guard travel routes and engage in hostilities with Native American tribes.  By the 1900s the military presence expanded for training, with General Patton training an army for tank maneuvers in preparation for World War II battlefields thousands of miles away.  Today, the Air Force, Navy, Marines and Army train personnel and test new equipment on hundreds of square miles of desert.  All of these military bases depend to some degree on open, undeveloped desert.  Fewer neighbors means fewer noise complaints and less safety hazard.

Fort Irwin -- the Army's National Training Center -- rotates roughly 75,000 soldiers and their vehicles/equipment through the desert base each year.  The Marine Corps Air-Ground Combat Center at Twentynine Palms also trains thousands of soldiers and simulates battles in the desert.  Both bases have recently expanded or are in the process of acquiring more land, much of it along its western boundary and overlapping with the Johnson Valley OHV area. According to the environmental impact statement for the expansion, the new training area would also impact some high quality desert tortoise habitat. 

The map above shows the Marine Corps planned expansion of its base at Twentynine Plams onto over 300 square miles of desert, conflicting with OHV areas and habitat for endangered species.

Other bases include Edwards Air Force Base and China Lake Naval Air Weapons Station, which conduct testing on desert ranges to develop new technologies. Both are located in the western Mojave Desert and cover an expansive swath of territory, much of it relatively undisturbed, and leaving habitat for a variety of animals, including the rare Mohave Ground Squirrel. In the Colorado Desert of Souther California, the Chocolate Mountain Aerial Gunnery Range covers over 700 square miles of habitat, providing a training range for the Navy and Marines.  The Yuma Proving Ground, near the California/Arizona border, encompasses over 1,300 square miles of desert habitat.

The military recently announced at a recent Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan meeting that it was considering a proposal to declare a swath of the desert in California and parts of Nevada as unfit for wind energy projects, citing the impact of spinning turbine blades on military training and testing. The spinning blades are known to interfere with radar, and potentially spoil test results.

The image above is from the Department of Defense's presentation at a DRECP stakeholder's meeting, depicting restricted airspace and aviation testing zones above the California desert.

Give it a Break
This post really represents just a brief summary of the demands on the desert, and I have already described simulated wars, millions of hikers and campers, millions of off-highway vehicle riders, and thousands of square miles of new farms, mines and homes.  Our deserts are not infinite, and our every step has an impact.  Let's keep our lands wild.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Brilliant Blooms

On my last visit to the Mojave National Preserve,  I came across many of the cacti pictured below sporting brilliant red blooms, which I believe are Mojave mound cactus (welcome corrections on this identification!).  I never tired of admiring each one, which made it difficult to get anywhere in a timely manner.

Friday, June 15, 2012

John Muir, dead at age 175.

"What creature of all that the Lord has taken the pains to make is not essential to the completeness of that unit--the cosmos? ... They are earth-born companions and our fellow mortals." - John Muir, born 1838.

It is devastatingly ironic to me that the organization that John Muir created is transforming itself into a surrogate of the industrial menace that ravages what he loved. I've written on this before, and I ask for your patience once more.

If the Sierra Club leaders continue with their approach of supporting industry as the solution to the problem that is destroying nature, its credibility as an environmental organization will be severely eroded, and Sierra Club leadership may not notice the decline.  The Sierra Club will have failed at its founding purpose - the appreciation of nature and the protection of what John Muir called "God's cathedrals", referring to beautiful natural landscapes consisting of miracles big and small.

The Sierra Club today wants to stand for something "good" -- a noble purpose that has found the wrong path. The Sierra Club, rightfully, wants the world to reduce carbon emissions at a track meet pace to head off human-induced climate change that, by the way, resulted from our love affair with technology and convenience.  We diagnosed a problem -- climate change -- which stems from human ignorance of our impacts on the ecosystems that we not only depend on for clean air, water and food, but for escape from the materialistic fascination with goods that detain and hold us from the natural environment that influenced centuries of human evolution before the advent of the television and Xbox. What was the Sierra Club's solution? Coal bad, wind industry good.  That sums up most of the Sierra Club's mass communications over the past year. You can find images of wind turbines emblazoned on the Sierra Club's Facebook, Twitter and web pages. The wind industry is our savior. How did an organization founded to protect our natural landscapes become one of the most well-funded and organized pawns of an industry that requires the destruction of those landscapes to remain profitable?

The Club's leadership has grown enamored with its "seat at the table" and industrial partners that sustain that seat and give it relevance in a political environment that requires wealth and powerful, broad alliances to get anything done. The Sierra Club capitulated to the same corrupt dynamics in our society that reduce complex problems to binary and polarized perspectives. If you oppose one thing, you have to be for something else. Good vs. Evil. That's all we talk about in the media, and betraying that binary perspective opens you up to attack.  Explaining that solar panels and massive wind turbines can have a deleterious effect on our natural resources is not acceptable in our 30 second sound bite,  140 character limit instant media world.

So why does the Sierra Club have to choose another industry as its "good" to defeat "evil" coal? Why can't the love of nature be our solution, and let that guide our decisions? If more humans appreciated nature beyond bumper sticker slogans, and were aware of their own impacts, maybe they would demand and seek more sustainable solutions.  How did Nature's lobbyists become the surrogates of another destructive industry, perpetuating society's ignorance of our impacts by pretending that this "good" industrial solution is guilt free?

I think that the Sierra Club's leadership lost faith in the power of Nature. Maybe after years or decades of losing battles, topped by the revelation that the planet is on life support as a result of runaway greenhouse gas emissions, they have given up hope that they can save landscapes from human greed. Ironically, they have become the "dark greens" in denial.  The planet can still be saved, we just have to destroy it first. Put up hundreds of thousands of wind turbines, each over 400 feet tall (The wind industry says that the bigger wind turbines are more "green".  Isn't that convenient?). These turbines will require that we industrialize tens of thousands of square miles of open space. We will need to pour millions of tons of cement, and make millions of tons of steel. We will have to build thousands of miles of new transmission lines, requiring more copper mining and processing. These turbines produce power at off-peak times, and only intermittently, requiring new natural gas power plants, according to the Argonne National Laboratory. That means more gas drilling and fracking.

And because rooftop solar is "too slow," we will have to support massive solar power plants that require the destruction of hundreds of square miles of ecologically intact desert.  We are dark greens in denial. The desert will suffer under climate change and go extinct because of warming temperatures, so we have to give away the desert to solar facilities that fragment habitat, cut off genetic connectivity, and contribute to the decline of biodiversity.

What is worse is that all of this twisted reasoning instills an insidious ethos that industry replacing nature is "beautiful."   The Sierra Club is selling this false dichotomy -- that we have to destroy nature to save it.  The Sierra Club's Paul Rauber, one of the architects of its communications strategy responsible for the Facebook, Twitter and Blog posts on behalf of the Club, laid out this in a January 2011 article preparing Club members for the inevitable solution he decided was necessary:
"Producing 10 percent of the energy the United States used in 2009 from wind farms, for example, would require turbines covering an area the size of New Hampshire."  -- Paul Rauber, Senior Editor at the Sierra Club.
The Department of Energy shows that generating enough energy to meet 20% of our energy demand will require the industrialization of an area covering 20,000 square miles.  Extrapolating from that, meeting 100% of our energy demand from wind energy will require us to industrialize an area nearly the size of Nevada.  So the Sierra Club's Senior Editor is now telling us that we have to accept natural destruction on a scale that would make it a threat at least second to the impacts of climate change.  And he made that argument flippantly in a Sierra Club blog post. Wow.

So it was extremely frustrating, but not surprising, when the Sierra Club supported two solar projects destroying pristine desert and grasslands in California (Desert Sunlight and Topaz solar power projects), and remained relatively silent on several others, declining to oppose them. In Washington D.C., declining to oppose a project means you support the project. (You can find a copy of Sierra Club's memo to the Department of Interior declining to oppose the Blythe Solar power project here.)  The Desert Sunlight project is destroying nearly 7 square miles of ecologically intact desert habitat, and the Topaz solar project will industrialize nearly six square miles of an area described as California's "Serengeti."  Long-time environmental advocate and former California Coastal Commissioner Peter Douglas decried environmental groups' capitulation to the Topaz project.  You can read his rebuttal here.

The Sierra Club began to recognize the unsustainable path of utility-scale solar power projects on desert habitat by 2012, and started the wise "My Generation" rooftop solar campaign.  The campaign is still in its nascent stages, but is encouraging Sierra Club members to explore rooftop solar options and lobbying for incentives supporting rooftop solar incentives. The logic behind rooftop solar is simple.  Solar panels on rooftops cut greenhouse gas emissions during peak energy demand hours, do not require expensive transmission lines, and do not require the destruction of our wildlands. Rooftop solar is, by far, the most efficient energy model human have available to power our materialistic world.

Within months, however, the Sierra Club launched its "Wind Works" campaign, lobbying on behalf of the American Wind Energy Association to extend subsidies for an industry that has testified before Congress to weaken the National Environmental Policy Act.  The Sierra Club has expressed nearly unwavering support for an industry that still refuses to respect wildlife.

The Sierra Club is involved in relatively token challenges of the renewable energy industry run amok.  They are challenging the North Sky Wind energy project near Tehachapi, California, which will threaten the California Condor and other raptors.  And the Club is fighting the Calico Solar power project, which developer K Road Power wants to build in the heart of the Mojave Desert and on ecologically important habitat for several plants and wildlife.  Perhaps these steps are the victories of people in the Sierra Club that have not yet lost hope that there is a better alternative to the industrialization of our public lands. 

But you wont hear much about these cases in Sierra Club communications, because they are drowned out by the constant drumbeat of industry's cheerleaders demanding the growth of an industry that has shown no respect for wildlife. Dave Hamilton, Sierra Club Director of Clean Energy, routinely trumpets the industry's expansion, and wrote this in a blog post that sounds like an investor's publication: "Last quarter New Hampshire and Arizona -- two states not typically thought of as traditional wind states -- grew the fastest in terms of new wind capacity.   The outlook for projects still in the pipeline looks even better.He is talking about the destruction of nature to power our refrigerators, televisions, and air conditioners.

This is the organization that John Muir created to protect the most beautiful creations he stumbled across in his life outdoors. John Muir probably never imagined a problem as horrible as climate change, but he never would have supported an industry that robbed him of his love.

I sense in pockets of our political, economic and civic world of leaders, a need to be seen as progressive facilitators and not as obstructionists in the way of new centralized industrial development of renewable energy. This is an alarming and, in the long view, a self-destructive, tragic trend because it is unnecessary and erosive of community wellbeing. Cities and Counties are entirely capable of reducing greenhouse gas emissions and generating clean, renewable, affordable energy for their regions with existing technologies without destroying vast swaths of critical habitat and celebrated public lands. All that is needed is political will, courage and progressive vision. -- Peter Douglas
Millions of rooftops, parking lots, and other spaces in our cities can host solar panels, and transform the way we view energy generation. It will not be easy, but it will be sustainable.

Reid Gardner Coal vs. Energy Efficiency

A study commissioned by the Sierra Club found it is cheaper to shut down the dirty Reid Gardner coal power plant in the year 2013 and invest in energy efficiency measures than to keep the toxic plant running.  Despite the overwhelming benefits to health and economy, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) continues to consider allowing the coal power plant to run with marginal reductions in emissions, which inflict the nearby community of Moapa, and fill desert skies and National Parks with haze.

According to the study, shutting down all four Reid Gardner coal burners by 2013 would save Nevada residents $59 million dollars over the next 20 years, based on a scenario in which Nevada Power invested instead in enough energy efficiency upgrades to reduce power consumption by just 2%.  I suspect the report used a conservative estimate for the savings from energy efficiency measures. Consider California's requirement that energy vampires like cell phone chargers become more energy efficient will save California residential and commercial ratepayers up to 306 million dollars each year, and reduce electricity demand equivalent to the amount required to power 350,000 homes.  That's the same as taking the city of Bakersfield off of the grid.

Make these more efficient...

...and you can shut down this coal plant and save money on utility bills.
The study also found that investing in energy efficiency and shutting down the Reid Gardner plant would reduce the need for new transmission lines, which are not only expensive to build, but scar our natural landscapes and require immense amounts of copper and steel (not climate friendly!).

What is another solution that is friendly to the desert? Rooftop solar.  California alone has installed over 1,200 megawatts of rooftop solar capacity.  That is more than twice the amount of power generated by the dirty Reid Gardner coal plant, which belches out nearly 3,000 tons of carbon and  4,000 tons of nitrogen oxide emissions each year, according to the EPA.

Tell NV Energy and the EPA that you want energy efficiency, not coal!

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Foolish Landscape Defender

"John Muir is a fine Scotchman...but for all that it is too foolish to say that the imperative needs of a city to a full and pure water supply should be thwarted for the sake of a few trees or for scenery, no matter how beautiful it might be." -- Andrew Carnegie quoted in the San Francisco Chronicle, 1913.

Above: The desert being scraped and mowed to make way for BrightSource Energy's solar project in the Ivanpah Valley.  The facility will generate 392 megawatts of energy.  California has already installed over 1,200 megawatts of rooftop solar panels -- a much more efficient way to achieve clean energy goals.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

It's About Time!

Celebrating the Sierra Club's "Wind Works" lobbying campaign:

 All of that wildlerness is finally put to good use.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Sierra Club Launches Wind Works Campaign

The Sierra Club just launched its Wind Works campaign, lobbying on behalf of the American Wind Energy Association to extend subsidies for the wind industry.

Wind Works! *, **, ***, ****, *****, ******
* Wind requires natural gas peaker plants to run in the background, emitting greenhouse gasses.
**Wind facilities will fragment at least 20,000 square miles of our land just to generate 20% of our energy.
***Wind turbines are expected to kill up to a million birds each year, including raptors and migratory birds.
****The wind industry does not accept Sierra Club advice on how to avoid killing wildlife.
*****The wind industry testified before Congress to weaken environmental law.
******Energy efficiency and rooftop solar programs are a better alternative than wind, and can reduce our dependence on fossil fuels without destroying ecologically intact lands.

Crews destroy Joshua Tree woodland habitat to make way for more giant wind turbines in the west Mojave Desert. Photo by Friends of Mojave.
A single wind turbine pad. The turbine will eventually rise to a height of over 400 feet and endanger raptors foraging for food.  Photo by Friends of Mojave

The Pine Tree wind energy project, which has etched wide access roads into ecologically intact habitat near Tehachapi, California. This facility is responsible for at least 8 Golden Eagle deaths, and stands in the path of foraging California Condors.
A bulldozer cuts into the land to make way for a single wind turbine in Oregon.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Climate Change and the Desert

The desert -- just like the mountains of West Virginia and the tundra of the Arctic -- faces the grim reality of human-induced climate change caused by fossil fuel emissions from our vehicles and power plants.  The current and future impacts of human-induced climate change on the desert make it even more urgent to be good stewards of our wildlands here in the southwest.  A 16 May workshop for the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan (DRECP) outlined some of the expected changes in the desert.  Here are numbers to be concerned about:
  • By 2050, the annual mean temperature in the Mojave Desert could climb as much as 4.7 degrees Fahrenheit. The mean temperature in the Sonoran Desert could climb as much as 4.3 degrees Fahrenheit. 
  • Mean annual precipitation could fall  by as much as 2.6 inches in the Mojave, and 2.2 inches in the Sonoran Desert by 2050.
  • Hot spells in both deserts would be more frequent/prolonged, with up to 27 more days per year experiencing temperatures above 90 degrees Fahrenheit in the Mojave Desert.

We are already seeing the impacts of climate change in the desert, but the project impacts yet to come would have even more massive results.  Desert species are well-adapted to the heat, but they depend on a delicate ecological balance and sparse, but well-timed rains and dry seasons.  Prolonged droughts, invasive plant species, the loss of natural springs, and a changing mix of vegetation (and thus, food source for wildlife) will challenge the ability for our ecosystems to keep pace.

Not surprisingly, some of the desert species that are expected to be the most vulnerable to climate change are dependent on rare riparian habitat, according to research presented at the DRECP workshop. They include the Owens Pupfish, Southwestern Willow Flycatcher, and Mohave Tui Chub.  Other species of high sensitivity to climate change include Parish's Phacelia, California leaf-nosed bat, and the Arroyo Toad.  The study listed other species of concern, but less so than the "high sensitivity" species listed above:  Mohave Ground Squirrel, Desert Tortoise, and the Barstow Wooly Sunflower.

A vulnerability matrix categorizing desert species and their likely vulnerability to human-induced climate change. From the DRECP Workshop on Climate Change. Click to enlarge. For another source on climate change models in the desert, see "Climate Change and Ecosystems of theSouthwestern United States" [PDF]
An unfortunately common response to human-induced climate change is to replace mountaintop removal coal mining with desert-destroying solar, and natural gas wells with thousands of massive industrial wind turbines; championing one industrial behemoth over another.   It is important to have a solution -- something "good"-- to campaign for, but greenwashing an industry that views conservation as a "policy threat" is a blatant compromise of our principles and conservation ethic.  That is why energy efficiency and distributed generation are true grassroots solutions to climate change. Generating power locally at the point of use, and cutting down on wasteful energy vampires.   California's leading energy efficiency standards have allowed the state to maintain energy consumption roughly even for three decades while other states have increased consumption as much as 40%.

But we still have easy steps we can take to cut our consumption.  A new standard in California will require cell phone chargers and other energy vampires to be more efficient, and is expected to save enough electricity to power 350,000 homes, and save ratepayers up to 306 million dollars.
Meanwhile, California has already installed over 115,000 rooftop solar installations, generating over 1,200 megawatts of local clean energy.  That's enough to replace a couple Reid Gardner coal power plants, and is three times more energy than will be produced at BrightSource Energy's Ivanpah Solar power project, which has destroyed 5.6 square miles of pristine desert, and has killed or displaced over 130 desert tortoises.  The most innovative aspect of clean energy technology is that we can generate energy just about anywhere.  With so many empty places to put solar panels in our cities, we can finally give our wildlands a break.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

BrightSource Solar Project Will Endanger Water Supply in Inyo and Nye Counties

BrightSource Energy's proposed Hidden Hills Solar Electric Generating System (HHSEGS) is expected to significantly draw down local aquifers in California and Nevada, according to the California Energy Commission, unless the company can buy out local water users.   The solar project would be built on 5 square miles of privately owned land in California's Inyo County, right next to the border with Nye County, Nevada.  The facility would use nearly 45.6 million gallons of water each year for mirror washing and other services during operation, and up to 227.1 million gallons of water during the 29 month construction period.   The CEC's draft certifications would require the company to conduct well monitoring and offset its water draw by purchasing over 53 million gallons each year to restore the Pahrump Valley Groundwater Basin.

The facility's water draw could affect desert springs along the historic Old Spanish Trail that used to provide relief to weary desert travelers and a reliable source of water for wildlife.  Nearby Stump Spring in Nevada still supports season pools 30 to 70 feet long and 1 to 2 feet deep, and has "significant wildlife value," according to the CEC, while other springs are believed to be largely dry due to heavy agricultural pumping. The CEC staff assesses that HHSEGS "would not be expected to have a measurable impact to the Amargosa River or its tributaries," although the preliminary assessment also acknowledges a lack of data needed to make a more confident determination. 

A view of the project site in the distance, with the Spring Mountains across the Nevada border in the background.
Inyo County has expressed concern regarding the project's financial burden on the area, since providing emergency and other services to the remote site is expected to cost Inyo County 11 million dollars during construction, and 1.7 million dollars annually during operation, according to documents submitted to the CEC.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Desert Peaks: Then and Now

In late 1952, Sierra Club member Bill Henderson roused excitement during a New Year's party for the Club's Desert Peaks section for an adventurous hike into the Coxcomb Mountains in present-day Joshua Tree National Park.  Written up in the Sierra Club Bulletin and Desert Magazine, the desert explorers reached the roughly 4400 foot high summit without trails.  As Louise Werner wrote in the May 1953 issue of Desert Magazine, "[t]he view to the southeast encouraged speculation and planning for future climbs. Range after range of desert mountains stretched as far as we could see: the Palens, the Granites, the Little Marias, the Big Marias.  Like an undulating carpet of chocolate-brown velvet, they stretched to the vanishing point."

The hikers on their way into the Coxcomb Mountain range, just north of Desert Center, California. Photo from the May, 1953 issue of Desert Magazine. Photo by Niles Werner, article by Louise Werner.
Today, that same view is threatened by both climate change and industrial-scale renewable energy projects.  Developers have plans -- or have already begun construction -- on solar projects in many of the valleys in view from the Coxcomb summit, including the Palen, Genesis, Blythe, and McCoy solar power projects.  These projects alone would bulldoze over 25 square miles of desert habitat and sites of cultural significance to Native Americans.

From the town of Desert Center, the Coxcomb mountains might not be visible on a windy day, thanks to  construction of First Solar's Desert Sunlight project.  A resident of Desert Center shared the photo below on Facebook of a dust storm at the Desert Sunlight solar project.  If the topsoil had not been removed by First Solar's tractors to make way for solar panels, the Coxcomb Mountains that inspired an adventurous hike in 1953 would be visible in the background.

Clouds of dust obscure the view of the Coxcomb Mountains from Desert Center. Photo by Donna Charpied.