A decades-old land bat­tle flares anew

What hap­pens when a na­tional mon­u­ment loses fed­eral pro­tec­tions? An ugly ex­am­ple is in the Cal­i­for­nia desert

Los Angeles Times - - FRONT PAGE - BY BET­TINA BOX­ALL

DESERT CEN­TER, Calif. — Just be­yond the south­east cor­ner of Joshua Tree Na­tional Park, rows of boarded-up houses, gouged moun­tain­sides and con­crete ru­ins are an ugly re­minder of the never-end­ing bat­tle over the West’s pub­lic lands.

This scarred piece of Cal­i­for­nia desert is what’s left of one of the coun­try’s largest open-pit min­ing op­er­a­tions and the lit­tle com­pany town that Kaiser Steel Corp. built af­ter World War II. More than three decades af­ter the Ea­gle Moun­tain iron mine closed, it still haunts the park that borders it on three sides.

Plans to turn the site into a huge land­fill and dump as much as 20,000 tons a day of South­land garbage into the gap­ing mine pits died in 2013 af­ter years of court bat­tles. Now, a pri­vate com­pany wants to use the pits for a $2bil­lion hy­dropower project.

The plant, pro­po­nents say, would help boost re­new­able en­ergy use in South­ern Cal­i­for­nia and lower green­house gas emis­sions. But park of­fi­cials fear the hy­dropower project could draw down lo­cal ground­wa­ter lev­els and harm wildlife.

The Ea­gle Moun­tain tract, shaped like a hand­gun aimed at the park’s in­te­rior, of­fers a les­son in what can hap­pen when fed­eral mon­u­ment pro­tec­tions are stripped from pub­lic lands — as Pres­i­dent Trump’s ad­min­is­tra­tion is con­sid­er­ing do­ing at a num­ber of na­tional mon­u­ments in the West.

“It’s been a sor­did his­tory,” said Mark But­ler, a former Joshua Tree su­per­in­ten­dent who is re­tired from the Na­tional Park Ser­vice.

In 1936, Pres­i­dent Franklin D. Roo­sevelt es­tab­lished Joshua Tree Na­tional Mon­u­ment on roughly 825,000 acres of fed­eral and rail­road hold­ings north­east of Palm Springs, cap­ping a hard-fought cam­paign to con­serve a sin­gu­lar desert land­scape of Joshua trees, mas­sive boul­ders and spec­tac­u­lar vis­tas.

But the mon­u­ment’s ban on new min­ing claims in­fu­ri­ated gold and sil­ver prospec­tors who’d long mined the area. In the 1940s, Kaiser Steel bought old patented claims to iron de­posits in the Ea­gle Moun­tains and started dig­ging them up.

In 1950, Congress shrank the mon­u­ment by more than a third, chop­ping

a chunk off the north­ern boundary and the Ea­gle Moun­tain area. The way was cleared for Kaiser to blast mil­lions of tons of iron ore out of the moun­tain­sides over the next three decades and ship it by rail to the roar­ing blast fur­naces of the com­pany’s Fon­tana steel plant.

The 1994 Cal­i­for­nia Desert Pro­tec­tion Act that up­graded Joshua Tree to a na­tional park added much of the Ea­gle Moun­tains to the park. But the law omit­ted the aban­doned mine and sur­round­ing fed­eral land.

On a re­cent day, the town rem­nants baked in 120-de­gree heat be­neath a moun­tain of mine tail­ings. The hulk­ing ru­ins of the ore load­ing area looked like a bombed-out vil­lage in Afghanistan. Rock benches traced the ex­ca­va­tion of four huge pits.

Jeff Har­vey and Steve Lowe of Ea­gle Crest En­ergy Co. climbed to the top of a metal tower that Kaiser fore­men had used to di­rect mine traf­fic.

The 360-de­gree view swept from park peaks to the north, over the moon­scape of the mine to the haze-veiled Chuck­walla Val­ley in the dis­tance.

“This would be full of wa­ter,” said Har­vey, look­ing at one of two pits that Ea­gle Crest wants to con­vert to reser­voirs.

Sep­a­rated by about 1,400 feet of el­e­va­tion, the reser­voirs would be part of what Lowe calls “an el­e­gant so­lu­tion” to a prob­lem Cal­i­for­nia is con­fronting as it boosts re­new­able en­ergy pro­duc­tion.

The sun doesn’t shine and the wind doesn’t blow ac­cord­ing to peak elec­tric­ity de­mand. Util­i­ties need some way of stor­ing wind and so­lar power — or shift­ing the pro­duc­tion time.

One way is with bat­tery sys­tems. An­other is through pumped wa­ter — the method that Ea­gle Crest pro­poses to use in an area that av­er­ages less than 4 inches of rain a year.

When the so­lar pan­els and wind tur­bines that are sprout­ing from the desert floor churn out more power than the elec­tri­cal grid needs, Ea­gle Crest would use some of that ex­cess to pump wa­ter through an un­der­ground tun­nel sys­tem to the 191-acre up­per reser­voir.

Later in the day, when en­ergy de­mand climbs, the wa­ter would be re­leased back into the tun­nel sys­tem, pow­er­ing tur­bines and gen­er­at­ing elec­tric­ity as it flowed down­hill to the 163-acre lower reser­voir.

Pumped stor­age is not new. There are seven of the op­er­a­tions scat­tered around Cal­i­for­nia at reser­voirs and lakes. Ea­gle Moun­tain would be the big­gest in the state, ca­pa­ble of pro­duc­ing 1,300 megawatts of elec­tric­ity — enough to sup­ply nearly 1 mil­lion homes.

Like all pumped hy­dropower sys­tems, it would ac­tu­ally con­sume more en­ergy push­ing wa­ter up­hill than it gen­er­ates with the down­hill flow.

Un­like the other Cal­i­for­nia op­er­a­tions, Ea­gle Crest would use ground­wa­ter — piped from three new wells drilled on pri­vate land in the Chuck­walla Val­ley to the south.

Over the project’s four­decade life, the com­pany says, it would with­draw a to­tal of about 100,000 acre-feet from the Chuck­walla aquifer. That is enough to sup­ply 200,000 homes for a year.

It is also enough to worry park of­fi­cials.

They don’t think ground­wa­ter feeds their springs. But the Pinto Basin aquifer on Joshua Tree’s east side sup­plies the Chuck­walla with un­der­flow. Draw down the Chuck­walla, they fear, and ground­wa­ter lev­els in the park could drop.

“The aquifers that un­der­lie the park are an­cient,” Joshua Tree Su­per­in­ten­dent David Smith said. “Once you start de­plet­ing those reser­voirs, no one knows what’s ac­tu­ally go­ing to hap­pen. How will that af­fect the park.… I don’t want to take that risk.”

He cited a 2012 re­search pa­per by fed­eral sci­en­tists who con­cluded that ground­wa­ter recharge rates in the Chuck­walla Basin may be much lower than pre­vi­ously es­ti­mated, sug­gest­ing the aquifer is al­ready in over­draft.

Ea­gle Crest, which bought the 10,000-acre Ea­gle Moun­tain site two years ago for $25 mil­lion, dis­putes the pa­per. Even if it is ac­cu­rate, Har­vey says, com­pany wells would de­plete the Chuck­walla aquifer by less than 1%.

Ground­wa­ter isn’t the park’s only worry. The hy­dropower project would dis­turb an area that has been largely quiet for decades, al­low­ing bighorn sheep and other wildlife to re­turn.

But­ler warns that plop­ping two ar­ti­fi­cial lakes on such arid land would at­tract ravens and other preda­tors that could prey on threat­ened desert tor­toises and other park wildlife.

“You’re go­ing to be es­sen­tially chang­ing the ecol­ogy of that re­gion,” said But­ler, who was Joshua Tree’s su­per­in­ten­dent from 2011 to 2014.

De­spite the park ser­vice ob­jec­tions, the Fed­eral En­ergy Reg­u­la­tory Com­mis­sion granted Ea­gle Crest a hy­dropower li­cense in 2014.

In April, the U.S. Bu­reau of Land Man­age­ment an­nounced it was pre­par­ing to ap­prove a right of way on fed­eral land out­side of the park for 12 miles of Ea­gle Crest trans­mis­sion lines and a 15-mile, buried wa­ter pipe­line from the wells.

Both agen­cies es­sen­tially con­cluded that the hy­dropower project would not cause sig­nif­i­cant en­vi­ron­men­tal harm and would not de­plete the aquifer over the long term.

“It’s a FERC-li­censed project, so it is pretty much the law of the land right now,” Smith said with an air of res­ig­na­tion.

He grew up in San Diego County, the son of desert rats who headed for Joshua Tree and Anza-Bor­rego Desert State Park on the week­ends. He learned how to climb on Joshua Tree’s boul­ders. He got his first per­ma­nent park ser­vice job there.

“I love Joshua Tree. It’s part of who I am as a per­son,” said Smith, who suc­ceeded But­ler as su­per­in­ten­dent.

He man­ages a park that is surg­ing in pop­u­lar­ity — Smith ex­pects 3 mil­lion vis­i­tors this year — and is be­set by out­side pres­sures.

Devel­op­ment is on its doorstep. The ni­tro­gen in South­land smog fer­til­izes in­va­sive grasses that spread across the park, car­ry­ing eco­log­i­cally de­struc­tive wild­fires with them. Global warm­ing threat­ens the park’s sig­na­ture Joshua trees.

Yes, he ac­knowl­edges, the Ea­gle Crest project could help re­duce the green­house gas emis­sions that fuel cli­mate change. “My con­cern is that the so­lu­tion does not cause prob­lems in the park,” he said.

Lowe, Ea­gle Crest’s pres­i­dent, ticks off the ways in which the aban­doned mine is “a great site” for his project.

It is close to ex­ist­ing elec­tri­cal trans­mis­sion cor­ri­dors and so­lar farms — a new one glints just down Kaiser Road. And, he says, it’s “re­pur­pos­ing a brown­field site that is never go­ing to wind up the way it was.”

Lowe and his late father, Art, founded the com­pany in 1991 and started pur­su­ing the hy­dropower project de­spite the com­pet­ing land­fill pro­posal.

Ini­tially, they eyed the wind tur­bines pop­ping up in the desert. Now, with the growth of so­lar and Cal­i­for­nia’s push for re­new­able en­ergy, Lowe fig­ures his time has come.

“The grid needs this,” said Lowe, who runs the com­pany out of Santa Mon­ica.

Two years ago Ea­gle Crest signed up a devel­op­ment part­ner, Nex­tEra En­ergy, a large en­ergy pro­ducer with sev­eral so­lar farms in the Cal­i­for­nia desert, in­clud­ing Desert Sun­light, the 4,000-acre op­er­a­tion down the road.

But Lowe has yet to line up util­ity cus­tomers for the hy­dropower. And con­ser­va­tion groups have filed protests of the pend­ing right-of-way ap­proval in a move that fore­shad­ows an­other court fight.

The long bat­tle over Ea­gle Moun­tain, it seems, is not yet over.

“Since those bound­aries were changed, there’s been al­most 70 years of fight­ing over this land­scape,” said David Lam­from, Cal­i­for­nia desert direc­tor for one of the groups, the Na­tional Parks Con­ser­va­tion Assn.

“So when peo­ple are think­ing about the real im­pli­ca­tions of rolling back na­tional mon­u­ments — they are se­vere.”

“I’ve spent a decade of my ca­reer try­ing to cor­rect past wrongs as they re­late to Joshua Tree Na­tional Park,” he added.

‘There’s been al­most 70 years of fight­ing over this land­scape. So when peo­ple are think­ing about the real im­pli­ca­tions of rolling back na­tional mon­u­ments — they are se­vere.’

— David Lam­from, Na­tional Parks Con­ser­va­tion Assn.

Ir­fan Khan Los An­ge­les Times

STEVE LOWE of Ea­gle Crest En­ergy Co. wants to build a $2-bil­lion hy­dropower project in a former mine next to Joshua Tree Na­tional Park. Sup­port­ers and foes are de­bat­ing whether it’s good for the en­vi­ron­ment.

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