East Mojave Under Increasingly Heavy Siege By Outsiders & Plunderers

California’s eastern Mojave Desert is coming under increasingly aggressive attack, with outside interests moving to plunder its resources while simultaneously seeking to exploit it as a repository for its detritus. Some others who value it as a playground nevertheless exhibit a willingness to use it with abandon, in a manner that shows little regard for the consequences of their activity. And whatever check on the region’s steady erosion that was put into place by governmental action over the last several decades is now being compromised if not outright undone by the current administration in Washington, D.C., which is inimical to the preservation designs of environmentalists.
The Mojave Desert is a vast expanse of territory, covering 47,877 square miles, stretching from Los Angeles and Kern counties in the west and extending eastward into southern Nevada and Arizona and to a small portion of Utah at its furthest northeastern tip. It is bordered by the Great Basin Desert to its north and the Sonoran Desert to its south and east. Its topographical boundaries include the Tehachapi Mountains to the west, and the San Gabriel Mountains and San Bernardino Mountains to the south. Its boundaries are visibly demarked by the presence of its indicator species, Joshua trees, which are native only to the Mojave Desert. The Mojave supports over 1,800 species of plants.
California’s east Mojave is a subset of the Mojave Desert. Lying primarily in San Bernardino County, it is further removed from the large Southern California population centers of the greater Los Angeles area. It thus contains substantial swathes and pockets of, if not pristine land, areas that have remained relatively untouched, let alone developed, including canyons with rare plants seen no where else in the world and species only now being discovered.
Forces outside San Bernardino County have come to covet many of the East Mojave’s assets.
One of those coveted assets is water. Despite the fact that for the last century, the Mojave Desert receives less than 13 inches of rain a year, many of the aquifers below it have remained untapped, such that they are vast warehouses of tens of thousands and hundreds of thousands of acre-feet of ancient and pristine water. Beginning in the 1890s, entities from as far away as Chicago, Minneapolis and San Francisco hatched designs to capture the Mojave Desert’s water and convey it by means of aqueducts or pipelines to Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside or lower San Bernardino counties. Most of those efforts failed when met by the opposition of farmers and landowners out in the desert. Others went off the rails when the practical and logistical difficulties of what was being proposed manifested. Deep-lying Mojave Desert water became less of a priority when Metropolitan Los Angeles had its thirst slaked by other water piracies, such as Los Angeles’s rape of the Owens Valley perpetrated by Fred Eaton and Edward Mulholland and consummated in 1913 when Los Angeles began its perpetual draining, which has now gone on for more than a century, of Owens Lake in Inyo County or Mulholland’s last major undertaking, which he did not live to see to its 1941 completion, the Colorado River Aqueduct.
But with the explosive growth of the last half of the 20th Century, more and more water was needed to support the burgeoning population and expanding industry in Southern California. In 1997, the Metropolitan Water District bought into a proposal made by Keith Brackpool, a transplanted Englishman, to divert up to 1.5 million acre-feet of what he called “surplus” Colorado River water to Cadiz in the East Mojave, and “store” that water by pumping it into the water table there. In “dry years” Blackpool proposed allowing the Metropolitan Water District to extract water from the aquifer and conduct it through a 35-mile pipeline that was to be constructed between Cadiz and the Metropolitan Water District’s existing Colorado River aqueduct. Brackpool had put himself into position to make the proposal by creating the Los Angeles-based Cadiz Land Company, which purchased 4,000 acres of land in the desert near Cadiz, sunk a well there, and began growing organic vegetables and fruits, including beans, melons and tomatoes. Throughout its existence, the Cadiz farming operation failed to operate at a profit. But in the meantime, Brackpool was able to make an assertion, based upon the irrigation of the crops at the Cadiz farm, to water rights from the Cadiz/Fenner aquifer. Brackpool packaged a deal by which he would sell as much as 60,000 acre-feet of the native groundwater and Colorado River water mix to the Metropolitan Water District. He greased the way for the project’s approval by providing $235,000 in campaign contributions to then-California Governor Gray Davis. Five years of environmental studies resulted, in August 2002, with the federal government giving approval to the project. In October 2002, however, the proposal was rejected by the Metropolitan Water District’s board of directors after conservationists raised concerns over possible environmental damage. The rejection of the project led to expensive litigation between the Cadiz Land Company and the Metropolitan Water District.
The concept lay dormant for six years but in 2008, the Cadiz Land Company, by then known as Cadiz, Inc., revived the plan in modified form, emphasizing less the drawing of water from the Colorado River and instead proposing to obtain the water from sources feeding the area’s dry lakes that are subject to evaporation. The revived project, to entail the sinking of 34 wells into the desert and construction of a 44-mile pipeline to meet up with the aqueduct carrying Colorado River water to the Los Angeles and Orange County metropolitan areas, was given a tentative budget of $536.25 million. Cadiz, Inc. first arranged to find potential buyers of the water, lining up the Santa Margarita Water District, in Orange County; the Three Valleys Water District, which provides water to the Pomona Valley, Walnut Valley, and Eastern San Gabriel Valley; the Golden State Water Company, which serves several communities in Southern California, including Claremont; Suburban Water Systems, which serves Covina, West Covina and La Mirada; and the Jurupa Community Services District, which serves Mira Loma in Riverside County. To obtain environmental certification of the project, Cadiz, Inc. turned not to the San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors, but to the Santa Margarita Water District, which was to be the largest recipient of the water. The Santa Margarita Water District is the second largest water district in Orange County, serving the affluent communities of Rancho Santa Margarita, Mission Viejo, Coto de Caza, Las Flores, Ladera Ranch and Talega.
A contingent of San Bernardino County residents protested the Santa Margarita Water District’s assumption of lead agency status on the project, officially known as the Cadiz Valley Water Conservation and Recovery Project, based on the considerations that the district lies 217 miles from the Cadiz Valley across the county line from San Bernardino County. And San Bernardino County could have contested that arrangement in court, but Cadiz, Inc. effectively moved to block that challenge from occurring, providing then-San Bernardino County Supervisor Brad Mitzelfelt, in whose First District and the Cadiz and Fenner valleys and much of the East Mojave were located, with $48,100 in political donations as he attempted to leapfrog from his position as supervisor to Congress. In the 2012 primary, Mitzelfelt proved unsuccessful in his effort to capture outright or get into the 8th Congressional District race, placing a distant fifth among thirteen candidates. In reaching for the Congressional brass ring, Mitzelfelt had to forego seeking reelection as supervisor, consigning him to leave office later that year. He was still in office as a lame duck when on July 31, 2012, the Santa Margarita Water District’s Board of Directors certified the environmental impact report for the Cadiz Water project, clearing the way for Los Angeles-based Cadiz, Inc. to extract an average of 50,000 acre-feet of water per year – more than 16 billion gallons of groundwater annually – for the next century from the eastern Mojave Desert and send it via pipeline westward to Los Angeles, Orange and Riverside counties.
Over the next five years, a succession of environmental challenges and lawsuits delayed the implementation of the project. Cadiz, Inc. has succeeded in overcoming all of those lawsuits or having them dismissed. The only snag holding up the project at this point is a 2015 U.S. Bureau of Land Management decision that Cadiz, Inc. could not use the existing federal railroad right-of-way for the water pipeline it intends to construct to convey water drawn from the aquifer to the Colorado River Aqueduct. This carried with it the requirement that the company go through a federal environmental review, under the the National Environmental Policy Act, delaying the project and adding to its expense. In March, however, the Donald Trump Administration, in the form of a memo from a Bureau of Land Management acting assistant director, revoked two of the legal bases for the agency’s 2015 decision.
At issue is the degree to which railroads are at liberty to allow their rights-of-way to be used for non-railroad purposes. A railroad right-of-way can accommodate a water pipeline if the water is to be used by the railroad, but the use of steam engines went out of vogue last century. In 1989, an Interior Department solicitor concluded that an 1875 railroad law allowed railroads to authorize other uses without Department of the Interior approval. A subsequent solicitor’s opinion altered that conclusion to state other uses had to “derive from or further”a railroad purpose. Both solicitors’ memos held that an involved process was required to determine whether secondary uses and what furthered railroad purposes. The California Bureau of Land Management office later found that “conveyance of water for public consumption is not a railroad purpose.”
Based on the March memo, which did not specifically note the Cadiz project, Cadiz, Inc. is asking the federal government for permission to proceed. Environmental groups, however, are at the ready to file further court action based upon the underlying law.
At the same time that elements in Orange County are on the verge of seizing the East Mojave’s water, other Orange County interests are militating to bury over 200 tons of radioactive debris, including uranium and plutonium, from the now decommissioned San Onofre nuclear plant in the East Mojave Desert.
In San Onofre, Southern California Edison began operating a Westinghouse pressurized water nuclear reactor, known as Unit 1, on January 1, 1968 and kept it under operation until November 30, 1992, at which point it was decommissioned and dismantled. Units 2 and 3, built in the 1970s, respectively went online August 8, 1983 and April 1, 1984 and were initially licensed until 2022. In 2012, after Edison had over the two previous years replaced at a cost of $671 million the steam generators in both remaining reactors with improved Mitsubishi steam generators, it was discovered, in the aftermath of a small radioactive leak largely inside the plants containment shell, that those generators were defective. When upon investigation the two replacement steam generators were found to show premature wear on over 3,000 tubes in 15,000 places, plant officials pledged not to restart the plant until the causes of the tube leak and tube degradation were understood. Neither unit was ever restarted and the entire plant is now to be completely decommissioned.
Within San Clemente wealthy members of that community as well as outlying areas in Orange and San Diego counties are exerting tremendous pressure on the city, county, state and federal officials to ensure that the units are entirely dismantled and all of the remnants of the plant, including its remaining and spent nuclear fuel, are removed. A plan along these lines that has been hatched is one by an El Cajon-based group, Citizens’ Oversight, to bury the nuclear waste near Fishel, located in the East Mojave Desert in San Bernardino County.
Proponents of that plan hope to advance it to the status of a fait accompli without alarming desert residents or San Bernardino County officials, thereby avoiding any meaningful opposition. Orange County residents and officials have developed a code by which they refer to the East Mojave area near Fishel as “Arizona” or “the desert.”
Despite that cunning effort at secrecy and stealth, the Sentinel, has obtained a document generated by Citizens Oversight which states, “Moving the spent nuclear fuel away from San Onofre is essential to minimize our overall risk. But where to put it? Keeping it in California can minimize hoops to jump through. Our proposal: near Fishel, CA 92277 [in] San Bernardino County.”
Under “Key features” the document states with regard to the Fishel site, “Population: 0. Nearest improved property: More than 13 miles away (water pumping plant). Nearest private improved property: Cadiz about 20 miles away. Nearest larger cities: More than 50 miles away (Lake Havasu, Colorado River. Twentynine Palms is about 47 miles away from the site, three mountain ranges away. Twentynine Palms/Yucca Valley and Needles are the minor civil divisions. They border on the Arizona and California railroad line.”
The document further touts Fishel as an ideal burial spot because it is “on the Arizona and California railroad line about 21 miles from Cadiz where it connects to the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad” and that the “total distance from the Barstow Burlington Northern Santa Fe switchyard is 100 miles to Cadiz, then 21 miles to Fishel.” Moreover, Fishel is, according to the document, “near a road” and “not close to any fault lines,” as well as “away from salty air [making] chloride induced stress corrosion cracking less likely.”
Putting the nuclear waste out into San Bernardino County’s desert makes sense, the Citizens’ Oversight document maintains, because Fishel is “away from densely populated areas [while there are] “more than 8.4 million near San Onofre” and in the desert there is “no tsunami risk.” Furthermore, according to the document, there is “No mega freeway nearby as we have at San Onofre.” In Fishel, the document states, the eastern Mojave is “very hot and dry with very little degradation over time due to the environment.”
The document also notes that the area falls within the 8th Congressional District, represented by “Paul Cook, a Republican from Yucca Valley.” The document implies having Cook accept San Bernardino County’s role as a repository for the nuclear waste will not represent a challenge. In 2013, shortly after he was elected to Congress, Cook as a Congressional candidate called for a federal review of the Cadiz project. The following year, however, he confounded environmentalists when he wrote a letter to Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell, recommending against any further environmental review of the project. Republicans in Orange County believe Cook will side with them in allowing the use of the Mojave Desert for nuclear waste disposal.
Motorcyclists who have long used Johnson Valley, which is east of Lucerne Valley, as a recreational riding area, are incrementally moving their riding zones eastward, partly as a result of a 2013 Department of the Navy approval of a Marine Corps’ record of decision calling for the expansion of the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center into Johnson Valley and Wonder Valley. The expansion extended the footprint of the existing Combat Center 146,667 acres to the west and 21,304 acres to the south, entailing the acquisition of 167,971 acres of civilian- and government-owned property, much of which was considered by off-road enthusiasts to be prime dune buggy and dirt bike terrain. Under that change, 42,803 acres in the Johnson Valley off-highway vehicle area remain available to the public year round. The Department of the Navy agreed to converting 4,912 acres of the 146,667 acres to be occupied by the expansion into what is referred to as a “shared use area” used by the military only two months out of the year and available for public recreation the ten remaining months. That boosted the shared use area of the entire combat center to a total of 43,049 acres. This has resulted in motorcyclists moving into areas that previously remained undisturbed for months or even years at a time.
During his final year in office, President Barack Obama in February 2016 established the Mojave Trails and two smaller monuments, Sand to Snow and Castle Mountains, laying out protection for just under two million acres of mostly pristine desert land next to or between Joshua Tree National Park and the Mojave National Preserve.
The 1.6 million-acre Mojave Trails exists as a travel corridor through which bighorn sheep and other wildlife transit between Joshua Tree National Park and the Mojave preserve and it also includes Native American pathways between springs, a part of the Old Spanish Trail and a 70-mile span of the now rarely travelled Route 66.
Last month, on April 26, President Donald Trump issued an executive order calling for an administrative review of all of the 27 national monuments created since 1995 under the Antiquities Act of 1906 which individually cover more than 100,000 acres. Trump’s order calls for U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke to determine whether any of the 27 national monuments were created without proper input from the public and local, state and tribal governments. It says designations made without such input may impede “energy independence” or “curtail economic growth.” Mojave Trails and Sand to Snow are among the 27 monuments covered by Trump’s order.  –Mark Gutglueck

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