Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Mining the Rocks, the Water, and the Air...Using Up the Land in the Western Mojave Desert

 My recent journey home from Southern California included a series of diversions and "short cuts" that afforded me a chance to see some new territory. We diverted from Interstate 215 to take a look at the Wrightwood mudflow and the San Andreas fault in Lone Pine Canyon. Later in the day we saw some spectacular flower displays in the Sierra Nevada foothills above the Central Valley town of Arvin.
We also took a diversion from Highway 14 a few miles south of the town of Mojave, following Silver Queen Road, Backus Road, and Willow Springs Road to take an alternate route to Tehachapi Pass. It offered some strange sights that reminded me in no uncertain terms how extensively and completely we can use up the surface of the Earth. I'm not passing judgement necessarily, since we make use of the resources, and a lot of them are in short supply. But still, some things were just stunning.

Take the photo above, which shows a portion of the eastern edge of the Tehachapi Wind Farm. How many turbines are in just this one picture? There are about 5,000 windmills in the entire field, and it is actually only the second-largest complex in California (the Altamont in the Bay Area is larger with 7,000; San Gorgonio Pass has 3,000). Tehachapi Pass is one of the consistently windiest places in the world, and utilities are trying to wring out every last bit of energy from the breezes. It provides enough electricity to power 350,000 residential units. It is an eerie sight to see them all in motion.
My photo-essays on the Mojave Desert and Basin and Range provinces generally focus on the wild areas like Death Valley National Park, the Mojave Scenic Preserve, and Joshua Tree National Park. The wild desert is incomparably beautiful. Near Mojave and Rosamond, the story is a bit different.

Five small mountain ranges rise through the sediments near the town of Mojave, and they mostly expose Tertiary (Neogene) volcanic rocks resting on older Mesozoic granitic rocks. Superheated water moving through fractures and faults in the rock deposited gold, silver and other valuable ores. We passed one of the richest of the mines first (above), the Golden Queen. It was discovered in 1894, and ultimately produced around $10,000,000 of gold (figured with gold at $20-$36 dollars per ounce; consider this to be equal to maybe $350-400 million at today's prices).
We turned onto Backus Road and soon passed the second major mining complex, on Middle Butte. This is listed as the Cactus Queen, discovered in 1934, and active until 1942. It produced in that short time about $5 million in gold (maybe $200 million at today's values). It looks to have been active more recently, but I don't have any info on any development after World War II (please comment if you are familiar with the mine). The sulfide and oxide minerals weather into bright shades of orange, yellow and white.

It strikes me that somebody got rich by mining these deposits, but there isn't much anyone can do with the landscape anymore. That's one of the choices we make as a society, assigning the value of one land-use over another.
A short distance later, we crossed the Los Angeles Aqueduct, one of the greatest engineering feats of its time (2013 is the centennial celebration of the completion of the project). The aqueduct is 223 miles long, and takes water from the Owens Valley and eastern Sierra Nevada to the San Fernando Valley using gravity to move most of the water at a capacity of just over 400 cubic feet per second. It is a seriously redirected river. It provides around half of the water used in Los Angeles. The story by which this all came about is the stuff of drama (it played a central role in the movie "Chinatown", for instance) and heartache and economic ruin for many people . One of the many choices that were made in this instance of history was the destruction of a large agricultural region in the Owens Valley.

I didn't actually notice when we crossed the aqueduct, as it is mostly in a buried pipeline in this area along Willow Springs-Tehachapi Road. I borrowed the photo below from Wikipedia (source here).
Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:LA_Aqueduct_Antelope_Valley.jpg
So we use the land. In the Mojave region we mine the land, the water, and even the air. It involves a lot of choices, and in this part of the western Mojave Desert, those choices were made a long time ago. The area could never be mistaken for a pristine wilderness in any case. But we inhabit the planet, and we insist on having our "things" like food, shelter, security, and iPads. As I said before, I don't necessarily pass judgement on these things, but I think we should be reminded once in awhile that our metals, plastics, glass and building materials don't magically appear out of thin air (except for the wind energy, of course).

One final note about the Mojave area. It's also a dumping ground. Have you ever wondered where old airliners go to die (or to be mothballed or sold to third-world country's airlines)? They go to Mojave Airport to be long-term parked (and you thought only cars get put into long-term parking at airports). The GoogleEarth image below shows part of the parking lot. I've heard (but cannot confirm) that it is cheaper to park a plane here than it is to park a car in some parts of San Francisco.

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