Year in Review: California Continues to Clamp Down on the Desert

2012 was a year of change for the California desert, as human society elsewhere increasingly closed its grip on the desert as a place to sacrifice for our comfort. But in a couple of ways, the desert struck back.

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To see the degree to which urban California has decided the desert must pay the price for its comforts, you don't have to look much farther than the Interior Department's Solar Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement, which -- after years of discussion with environmentalist groups -- offered up as much as a million acres of the California desert to industrial solar power development. Two Solar Energy Zones (SEZs) were designated in the California desert, including the 147,910-acre Riverside East SEZ, situated on one of the largest swathes of intact habitat to be found in the lower 48 states. Outside the SEZs, 766,078 acres have been designated "variance areas" where industrial development for solar power may proceed. These areas are found throughout the desert.

And that's just solar. Wind turbine installations expanded in the California desert with a vengeance in 2012, including a new facility in the previously undeveloped Yuha Desert in Imperial County and seemingly relentless expansion in the West Mojave. An overarching document intended to manage all renewable energy development in the desert, the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan (DRECP,) made only slow progress in 2012, and what progress it made was roundly criticized by activists and scientists.

Energy wasn't the only arena in which urban California continued to treat the California desert as a resource colony. The Cadiz Water Project, risen zombie-like from the grave to which the Metropolitan Water District consigned it a decade ago, gained the support of a few suburban water districts for its plan to ship water from a Mojave Desert aquifer to water lawns in Orange County. Opposition to the project on environmental, fiscal, and moral grounds reached levels even higher than those of ten years ago. The project progresses nonetheless, and this month Cadiz announced it had bought a pipeline that could connect its land in the Mojave to Northern California.

Energy and water are real resources, but the desert was a bargaining chip in illusory matters as well: despite illegal border crossing reaching significant lows this year as would-be migrants decided not to try to find jobs here, anti-immigration activists in the U.S. Congress decided to try to militarize the border anyway, threatening further damage to the fragile desert border environment.

Sometimes that environment bites back. in January, Jerry Brown cut funding to the Salton Sea Restoration Council, which had never met since its 2010 creation due to apparent recalcitrance by member agencies. Not that the Council could, even if it had met, have prevented the Sea's offering all of southern California a reminder that it needed to be dealt with. In September, a windstorm surging northward off the Sea of Cortez stirred up sediments from the sea floor, releasing clouds of hydrogen sulfide and blowing the repulsively odorous gas as far west as the San Fernando Valley. It was an omen of things to come: without a massive program to save the Sea, it will become far shallower and more likely to belch sulfurous fumes into the air.

It wasn't just the sea that rose up and said "hey wait a minute" in the desert this year. Though the California desert has historically been one of the most politically conservative areas in the state, and still is, desert voters sent a liberal to Congress to represent the Coachella Valley, and rejected a Tea Party candidate's bid to represent the extremely large Eight Congressional District in the eastern desert.

Though a proponent of the Cadiz project notoriously claimed this year that "there's nothing out there" in the desert, it turns out that the desert is full of people who love it here, who have opinions they're wiling to express, and who find value in the landscape around them. And that sometimes that landscape will speak up on its own.

Chris Clarke is an environmental writer of two decades standing. Director of Desert Biodiversity, he writes from Joshua Tree regularly at his acclaimed blog Coyote Crossing and comments on desert issues on KCET weekly. Read his recent posts here.

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