Monthly Archives: December 2010

Priorities

I see the amphitheater at Epidaurus, the toppled columns, the winter sun; I see the steam rising from the pools at Breitenbush. All this, and a spider running along the edge of a leaf, and a wet hand print fading from the rock as I watched it. It all seemed important at the time.

Dale

Kayak the Mojave!

When John C Fremont “discovered” the Mojave River, he named it the Inconstant River after its habit of trickling for a few miles in a rocky narrows in what’s now Victorville, and again in Afton Canyon, and elsewhere and between running merely as a vague tendency toward dampness deep in a hundred-mile riverbed full of sand.

Every once in a while, though, the river flows. I stood six years ago by its banks where it flows through Barstow and watched waves riffle.

Shaun, from over at the fine Mojave Desert Blog, sent along a photo of the river this morning taken in Victorville.

image

There has been more rain since.

I have a kayak in my storage locker in Barstow. Hmmm.

My Ivanpah story in the Desert Report

Now that the most recent issue of the Desert Report has been out for a couple of weeks, I think it’s fair for me to repost here the article I have in said issue. There’s plenty more articles where this one came from — by other, more expert and engaging writers — and you should definitely endure the hassle with the PDF download to read it.

On a personal note, I’m pleased to have snuck in under the wire as longtime Desert Report editor Craig Deutsche’s tenure comes to an end. Craig has done some amazing work there. Fortunately for us readers his replacement, Stacy Goss, is well equipped to fill Craig’s desert boots.

The Desert Report has long been a Sierra Club-sponsored publication. The Club cut all funding for the Report in the last year, coincident with the rise of promoting industrial renewables as a Club National agendum. I’m proud to say that the Desert Protective Council has tossed a not insubstantial amount of financial support their way, but DPC can’t afford to shoulder the entire cost. The Report is looking for contributions — financial and content — and I encourage you to help them out.

-Chris

The Ivanpah Solar Energy Facility: Smoke And Mirrors

October 27 was a cool day in the Ivanpah Valley; the temperature never broke 70 degrees. The people standing out on the bajada at the Primm Golf Course looked comfortable and collected in their business casual, if a little windblown. Among them were reporters and photographers, representatives of San Bernardino County, representatives of building trade unions, as well as supporters bused in from Las Vegas and Los Angeles. Brightsource CEO John Woolard and VP Joshua Bar-Lev were there, fresh from negotiating a $300 million equity investment in their project by a New Jersey firm. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar flew in by helicopter. The earthbound California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger sped past a knot of protestors at the entry to the event, his limo moving at twice the legal limit.

The occasion was the groundbreaking of BrightSource’s Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating Station (SEGS). On completion, the project’s more than 170,000 mirrored heliostats would track the sun, focusing its heat on three boilers atop 459-foot towers. Steam would drive turbines, generating a maximum of 392 megawatts of electricity. The average over time would be less than a third that. The cost: 3,400 acres of some of the best tortoise habitat in California, with ancient yucca clones, old-growth creosote, the endangered Rusby’s desert mallow (Sphaeralcea rusbyi var. eremicola), and much of California’s population of the Mojave milkweed (Asclepias nyctaginifolia). Though BrightSource claimed the site configuration would allow rows of “trimmed” native vegetation between the heliostats, the land would be useless as habitat, and the trimmed shrubs would almost certainly die within a couple of years. The desert landscape would be converted to an industrial area.

By the time Arnold’s ride sped past them, the tortoises on the site had already caused BrightSource concern. Biologists canvassing the area in advance of the bulldozers had found many more tortoises than BrightSource or the Feds had anticipated. By the day previous, the number had reached 27. The Biological Opinion, prepared by the Fish and Wildlife Service for the BrightSource project, had predicted that only 12 tortoises would be found in the area of the project’s Phase 1. A total of 32 was predicted for the entire site. If biologists were to find 38 tortoises on site it would trigger a round of renegotiation with Fish and Wildlife over BrightSource’s incidental take permit. It was starting to look like they might find more than 38 tortoises just in the footprint of Phase 1. Some of the biologists began to speculate that there could be as many as 100 tortoises on the site, perhaps even 125.

A few tortoises were determined to have strayed into the project area from nearby burrows. They were simply moved out of the way. The rest were in holding pens waiting to be moved off-site. A week earlier, during a BrightSource press tour, reporters watched as a mortally wounded tortoise slowly died. The BLM blamed traffic on Colosseum Road. Onlookers speculated that it had been hit by some heavy equipment. Not long after, another tortoise on the site fell victim to a coyote.

None of this appeared to faze Governor Schwarzenegger. He dedicated an historic marker at the site noting the groundbreaking. Standing in front of one of the project’s 10’ by14’ heliostats, he told the assembled crowd “Some people look out into the desert and see miles and miles of emptiness. I see miles and miles of gold mine.” He then returned to his limousine and sped away.

Other Values

Schwarzenegger’s quip is chilling to those with a sense of history. The Gold Rush of 1849 and subsequent years brought unprecedented devastation to old California, from the hydraulic mining that washed away whole hillsides, to the wholesale displacement of Native Californians that followed in its wake. The Governor’s invocation of the Gold Rush to describe future solar development seemed to portend a repeat of old tragedies.

As this Solar Gold Rush commences over the protests of desert preservation activists, Native people have taken note of the destructive scale of these projects as well, many of them proposed for sacred sites or places with significant archaeological and cultural value. Ivanpah attracted Native notice early on. Part of the traditional lands of the Southern Paiute, the valley was long frequented by the Chemehuevi and Mojave people as well. It offered relatively abundant game, plant food and medicines, and reliable springs. (The name Ivanpah means “clean water” in the Chemehuevi language.)

Native and non-native activists began working together to oppose the Ivanpah SEGS at Camp Ivanpah, a three-day protest encampment on the project site that took place from September 14-16. Chemehuevi elder Philip Smith explained to participants that his people had come to the Ivanpah Valley for centuries, visiting a small ridge northwest of the site. Ancient stonework atop the ridge hints at the significance of the place. Low walls hold shelves on which people once placed offerings. A stone triangle points at Spirit Mountain 50 miles southeast, the traditional origin point of the desert people. Despite the site’s significance to his people, Smith said, the BLM had not adequately consulted with the Chemehuevi, even omitting any record of Smith’s attendance at public meetings.

The Spirit Run

On October 16, a month after Camp Ivanpah, two dozen members of tribes from the Colorado River and the Coachella valleys — along with another dozen Non-native supporters — held a Spirit Run, a traditional physical act of prayer signaling kinship with and commitment to the land on which the run takes place. Similar Spirit Runs had been held in the 1990s to protest a proposed nuclear waste dump in Ward Valley.

At six in the morning, as the first group of runners assembled along Ivanpah Road in the Preserve, a cluster of people gathered to read a letter sent to Ivanpah activists by Sierra Club Director Michael Brune and Robin Mann, President of the Club’s Board of Directors. The letter was not sent to support the Spirit Run; it announced to Sierra Club activists the Club’s decision not to sue over Ivanpah. It began: “No one said that clean energy would be easy.” It ended with an admonition that Club members not stray from a list of approved talking points when talking to the press.

Lack of support from the Club notwithstanding, the Spirit Run began as the sun began to rise above the New York Mountains. Reverend Ron Van Fleet, an affable and yet imposing member of the Mohave tribe and the event’s lead organizer, was the first to run. He headed along Ivanpah Road toward the project site. A mile down the road he stopped, and a waiting runner took up the metaphorical baton. Relays continued in this fashion until the Spirit Run finally arrived at the Ivanpah Dry Lake just downhill from the SEGS site. From the playa, a row of heavy equipment, just visible at the far end of Phase 1, was raising a cloud of dust as they installed tortoise exclusion fencing. Philip Smith took a group of runners to the cultural site on the ridge and explained its significance. For the next several hours on the playa people shared food, listened to a group of Native singers, and shared stories and strategies. Fierce sun and dust-devils battered the gathering, and people wondered aloud what similar dust storms would do to 170,000 mirrors.

Eleven days later, as the Governor’s limo made its own cloud of dust heading away from the groundbreaking ceremony; the small group of protestors bore witness as flatbed trucks carried huge construction equipment toward the site. Representatives of Basin and Range Watch were there, as were a group of hikers from Desert Survivors who’d been camping nearby and got the news of the ceremony by email.

National press in attendance took note, and so despite mainstream environmental groups acceding to the project, the image that accompanied reports of the groundbreaking was this: a gigantic bulldozer bearing down on a few people waving a flag representing the desert tortoise. The flag looked delicate against the dozer’s juggernaut. The dozer’s victory was likely inevitable. But at least someone was there to hold that flag.

Granting Root Access

He’s not supposed to eat carrots these days. They’re higher in calcium than is good for him, according to his new vet. So he hasn’t eaten many in the last three or four months. But tonight I saw the carrots in the fridge, and I saw him looking at me, and I thought of the old Redd Foxx line about giving up smoking and drinking and eating fried foods and indulging in risky sex with questionable partners only to end up DYING FROM NOTHING.

So he got a little treat.

Speaking of extreme weather in the Mojave

They’re having a bit of water over at the other edge of the Mojave Desert, in the St. George Utah area.

Zion NP is closed due to flooding on the Virgin River, and they’re evacuating towns downstream possibly including St. George itself. Again, reference is made to 2005 and the surpassing thereof rainwise.

I spent a few days in St. George in October 1997 and — while walking down the main drag in search of non-chain food — was verbally assaulted by a group of cruising teenage boys, who screamed “faggot” at me and other such things they intended as insults. So it’s clear God is punishing the city. He is visiting his wrath upon them a little late, I think, and with a not particularly precise targeting algorithm to boot. But still. It’s an explanation.

Weather Report From Granite Cove

In this morning’s email, a message from Jim Andre (director of UC Riverside’s Sweeney Granite Mountains Desert Research Center) (reposted with permission):

Hey folks, not sure if I sent this link to you but we have a new real-time weather station in Granite Cove now and the conditions/data can be viewed at:

http://www.wrcc.dri.edu/weather/ucgr.html

Of course there is also worthy weather news to report with this amazing storm.  Storm total here since Friday is approx. 3.5”, all rain, and it’s been steady not too heavy yet, hardly any breaks really.  It’s also been cloudy (mostly fog) 9 straight days, which might be some sort of record in my 18 years here.  The largest single storm precip event here was winter of 04-05 when 4.25” fell in about 8 hours, that’s when Jan & Megan’s Toyota washed away (leading to several appearances on Click and Clack’s Car Talk)….this storm might surpass that single storm event as the more intense rain is still on taps later today and tomorrow as the low finally ejects east.  I recall Bob Norris mentioning a 5” tropical system in Sept once….perhaps 1979, Kathleen?  But we do not have an official record of that event since official GMDRC data goes back to 1986.  So by end of day Wed. we might have a new official single storm record?

Many of our rainiest winters are during “La Niña” conditions, and we are positively in one now.  I particularly enjoy this storm because it’s a classic “El Niño” pattern with a western Pacific split flow and moist southerly jet.  If it WAS an El Niño year, my how the media and many climatologists would be hypin’ it.

Though we are getting an epic rain, we can’t claim to be the most outstanding locality for this storm has dropped more than 12 ft of snow at Mammoth, 10” rain in southern Owens Valley (valley bottom, incredible), up to 10” in some west Mojave locations, over 20” at Devore, and more than 25-30” in the coastal ranges from Santa Barbara and up through the Central Coast of CA.  Tell that to the next boasting easterner that claims we Californians don’t have weather!  Indeed some of the largest single storm precip totals in North America occur in CA during patterns such as this.  Rarely do hurricanes exceed 20” of precip.

Jim

The Winter of Ought-Four and -Five Jim mentions was wet indeed. Here’s a photo I took that January, which long-time readers may remember; it’s of Silver (usually Dry) Lake just north of the Mojave Preserve, along the road from Baker to Shoshone:

Silver Lake

And of course the wet weather that winter led to an astonishing growth of desert plants both native and exotic, which contributed to the worst desert fire season on record, in which a million acres of the previously fireproof Mojave and Sonoran deserts burned in six weeks or so. But we won’t think about that just yet.

Leaving LA

I can confess now that I was keeping a secret, kind of, when I wrote this paean to Los Angeles. Now that The Raven’s most recent job has come to an end, and there’s no further negotiations left to worry about in that department, I don’t have to keep it a secret any longer.

We’re leaving.

It’s one of those opportunity crisis things. We can’t afford to live here on my income alone, and yet it would be nice for The Raven to be able to take some time to figure out what she really wants to do with her life. It’s cheaper in the desert, and though I’ve come to love LA I want to move back to the desert someday anyway, and The Raven likes the desert well enough, and even if she didn’t — she tells me — she’d overlook that to be with me in a place where I want to be.

So we’re moving to the desert.

We’ve been looking for places in Palm Springs, which boasts proximity to Joshua trees (in their eponymous National Park) and art, Mount San Jacinto and gay bars: with this for her and this for me, it seems like a good compromise place for us.  Hopefully we’ll find something good. If not, there’s a whole lot more desert to try.

I wouldn’t have thought, when I moved here two years ago and hated most things about the place, that I’d be melancholy about leaving. But I am. There are people I love here.

So. Now you all know.

Los Angeles

My old friend Andy Golebiowski, with whom I fought against wars and intolerance and stuff 30 years ago in Buffalo, posted a video on The Facebook last month. It’s a profile of Buffalo’s architectural heritage, gorgeously shot, and not even a little apologetic about its boosterism. Take a look:

I don’t spend a lot of time missing Buffalo. I haven’t been there for a decade. The last time I was there I couldn’t wait to leave. Every once in a while, though, I remember that isn’t Buffalo’s fault, but is more a reaction to my last few years there. A different person living a different life might well be able to live one well in Buffalo. Still, it’s been a long time since I thought of Buffalo as “home.” The video above made me think of Buffalo that way, for a while.

It’s an odd thing. Though we moved to the outlying suburbs from rural Central New York in 1967, I really only lived in Buffalo from 1972-82. I then moved to the San Francisco Bay Area and lived there for almost twice that amount of time. I know the Bay Area far more intimately than I ever knew Western New York. In Buffalo my neighborhood was about five miles across. In Northern California my neighborhood stretched from Oregon to the Mojave. In Buffalo i was circumscribed, by parents and by circumstance but mainly by my doubts about my own value. Once I got to Berkeley those doubts started to dissipate.

Andy is a Buffalo partisan. He’s got one of the most robust senses of humor I have ever known, and he’s pretty good at self-deprecation — though he might argue with that. But trash Buffalo in his presence and he just might flare up. I get it. He’s stayed there, he’s made the city his lifelong home as others abandon the place in droves, all of them talking about how the places they landed are far superior. There’s a character judgment implicit in that criticism, an implied “why are you not smart enough to leave?” People who used to live in Buffalo are worse than most at trashing the Old Country, it seems. It has to get really old for people like Andy who’ve stayed committed to the place, worked for decades to make it better — or at least to slow the rate of its decline. The place has problems, to be sure. About four or five of the buildings I lived in during my years in Buffalo are vacant lots. Capital has fled. But if you like cold winters better than hot summers, and your income doesn’t depend on proximity to your employers, then I’d think Buffalo could be just a fine place to live. And you could pick up a stunning, slightly dilapidated Victorian for about 70K and move in. Of course it might take 35K to heat it every year.

People tend to fix their opinions of a place and hold on to them. It was only after 25 years of not living in Washington DC, when I finally went back in September to lobby against desert-killing solar, that I realized I loved the place and missed living there. Which would have shocked the hell out of me back then.

SoCal was another one of those places I prejudged, for a very long time. When I lived in Northern California, I adopted — without intending to even a little — the Northern Californian’s reflexive disdain for all things south of the Tehachapi Mountains. Maybe it was that old National Lampoon Neil Young parody I listened to in 1975 (on WPHD. Buffalo’s Progressive Rock Station, Quadraphonic 103!) or maybe it was just something ambient like Valley Fever or headlice. I caught it: the curled lip, the wondering why anyone would voluntarily choose to live here, the snap judgment of superficiality and airkisses. This despite the fact that my best friend, my dear ex-wife and the girlfriend who preceded her all grew up within ten miles of each other, in Central LA and South Pasadena. If the place gave rise to people who meant so much to me it couldn’t be all bad, you’d think I would have thought. But I didn’t. Not really.

When I first started spending time with The Raven, I had fled the Bay Area for the desert. I thought it certain that my path led out of California, and shortly. Las Vegas, maybe — closest city to the Mojave National Preserve, after all, and a place that to my surprise I found I liked. Or Tucson. I’ve wanted to live in Tucson since 1984 or so. I will eventually, I think. Los Angeles was a stopgap when my verbal lease ran out in Nipton. “How about I move in,” I suggested to The Raven, “and spend a little time looking for work and we see how it works with us living together.” Pretty damn well, as it turned out, but Los Angeles was never supposed to be anything more than a waystation. It didn’t help that one person who at that time appeared to be a close friend opined that Los Angeles was the ugliest city she had ever seen.

About a year and a half ago I was stuck in traffic heading from the 5 onto the 101, watching the late afternoon light slanting off downtown, inching forward little by little on a curly interchange by the LA River and it struck me that I was watching the afternoon play out as though I was watching a work of art. Something about the seedling palms and the concrete abutment, the massive brutalism of the Hollywood Freeway and the old brick hotels south of Downtown — it was all just unruly beautiful, a kind of landscape some secret part of me had longed for. The feeling took me by surprise. In the days after I began to wonder whether I might actually be able to live here.

It helps that so much of the culture I grew up in was shaped by Los Angeles, some of it in quite subtle ways. The last eighteen months or so have consisted of this fish learning to see the water. The names here are familiar from my childhood, as if they were from a neighborhood in which I grew up instead of gleaned from Tonight Show in-jokes. Wilshire Boulevard and La Cienega. DuParrs. Mulholland Drive. For a year I drove The Raven to work each day right past the legendary Slauson Cutoff. When I caught my first really clear view of the Los Angeles River, forlorn and trickling in its culvert, I felt a rush of affection. I grew fond of the neighborhoods where the eastern end of the Hollywood Hills curls southward toward Downtown: Echo Park, Silver Lake, Los Feliz. I could live there happily for some time, I thought. I fit there.

But away from the hipsters and the espresso, away from the Industry iconic landmarks, there are many things about this city that I love. The architecture of modest flatland homes. The taco trucks. (Oh god.) The block of Fairfax between Olympic and Pico with ten Ethiopian restaurants. The municipal regulation that requires there be a Peruvian restaurant every three miles. The openness. The fact that I can walk out my door here and be at a farmers’ market in half a block, or at my choice of five grocery stores within a ten minute walk.

God help me, I love Los Angeles.

It doesn’t hurt that I’ve made some pretty close friends in my time here. Some of them were friends of The Raven’s first. Some of them I met on my own. Moving here would have been worth it just to meet these two jokers, for instance. I have never in my life had a broader circle of good friends within a year of moving to a new city, and I’ve got five other examples against which to compare LA. I had heard the usual stories, fake admiration and insincere affection from people afraid they might end up working for you someday, and those are true. Sometimes. In the circles in which people other than me travel.

I miss the Bay Area. I think idly of hiking the hills at Briones, of climbing Mount Diablo, of hanging out in those spots in the Oakland Hills where Zeke used to love racing through the redwood forest. The East Bay is where I was born, really, if you ignore that first pro forma 22 years spent in extended gestation. It’s home, and I think it always will be home. I flew into Oakland for a work meeting in September 2009, and looking out the airplane window I saw that the one spot in the entire Bay Area not covered in cloud was Zeke’s favorite swimming hole along Alameda Creek in Sunol Regional Wilderness. I left my heart — well, okay, a piece of it. And not in San Francisco but about 20 miles northeast of it, tamped down about three feet beneath the soil of my ex-wife’s yard. I will always belong there. But I belong in other places too, it turns out. Los Angeles is one of them.

Two days ago I left our apartment and walked into the Hollywood Hills into Runyon Canyon Park, a steep and dog-filled place. I felt my lungs as I climbed. I had not been since September, since DC. I saw the air. It was brown. I’m not claiming the place is perfect. If I live here for much longer I will likely develop asthma. Something to consider. But I kept climbing, and my lungs kept burning, and then I got to the top at Mulholland, touched the gate for formality’s sake, drank some water and turned around. A couple miles’ climb, 900 feet and change, and then a little ways back I got to the part of the fireroad where the canyon opens up and all of the LA Basin is arrayed before thee. Clouds’ Rest, the locals call it, about a thousand feet above mean sea level, and standing there I realized I could see one two three ohmygod how many mountain ranges is this? without turning my head more than a little. The Santa Monica Mountains I was on. The San Gabriels to the north and east, a great gray wall already capped with a little snow. Should I count the Verdugo Mountains? A range eight miles long with more than 2000 feet of relief? What the hell. The Santa Anas there on the other side of East LA, and then off toward the city of San Bernardino its own eponymous range, where The Raven and I had just the weekend before passenged through whiteout conditions to eat dinner. There’s Santa Catalina Island clear to the south, but as mountainous as it is, calling it a mountain range would probably be cheating. Wow. Not counting Catalina, that’s five mountain ranges.

Oh. Not five. Look over there. All the way at the edge of visibility to the east, a hundred miles away at the verge of the desert, stood Mount San Jacinto — one of my favorite Southern California mountains, and one I intend to get to know far more intimately. So. I can walk out of my apartment and get to a place in about half an hour where I can see six mountain ranges. On a good day, if the smog is relatively fresh. And not counting Catalina. Or the Palos Verdes Hills, either. That’d really be stretching it. They’re only a thousand feet tall or so.  Of course they’d certainly call them mountains in Buffalo.