Environmental Institute Checks Out California's Water and Energy

EI trip participants examine the edge of the fast-disappearing Salton Sea. Wes Dick photo
For this year's Environmental Institute trip, we rode the train across the country to Southern California. The train trip offered a good look at the country, lowered our carbon footprint, and I think made the students realize that transcontinental travel is a significant undertaking.

In 1907, a poorly engineered irrigation effort wound up diverting the entire Colorado River into Southern California's Salton Sink, creating the Salton Sea. A massive effort by the Southern Pacific Railway took a year to stem the flow. The sea is sustained by runoff from agriculture in the Imperial Valley. It is important as a stop on the Pacific flyway, but has experienced massive bird mortality due to pollution and adverse environmental conditions in the water. With impending changes in California water allotments, people expect the sea will die in 2018.

Coachella Water District manager explains irrigation in a pepper field. Tim Lincoln photo
At the sea, we met with a biologist from the California Department of Water Resources, who explained the present state of efforts to save the sea (very expensive, no one's top priority, so probably will not happen). We also met with farmers, U.S. Bureau of Reclamation officials and local irrigation district officials to learn about numerous and complex water-related issues.

The second part of the trip focused on the rich renewable energy resources of the California desert and their proximity to the major Los Angeles electrical market. We toured geothermal, wind and solar power installations. Many of the students were sobered to see that none of the renewables are squeaky clean. One example: solar plants require herbicides to clean the 1.5 square-mile area where the mirrors sit, to ensure that the mirrors do not start ground fires.

Pryce Hadley and Sophia Potoczak in Kofa national wildlife refuge in Arizona. "We visited a solar power plant with over 900,000 mirrors, a commercial field of over 3,500 wind turbines and a geothermal power plant," said Pryce Hadley, '12. "We also exploring everything from the dessicated expanses of the northern Sonoran desert and desolate shores of the Salton Sea to the moutainous Pacific Crest Trail. EI trips open students' eyes to countless environmental and sociopolitical issues and create memories that will never be forgotten."
We also had a very interesting evening's discussion with the owner of a small company who installs wind turbines on single homes. He talked about the difficulties he has with overzealous county regulators. From my perspective, the Michigan had better get its renewable energy act together soon, or we will be left out.

Finally, we had time for some awesome hikes, two on the Pacific Crest trail, one in the Kofu Wildlife refuge in Arizona, and one in Joshua tree National park. On the trip we visited three distinct deserts, the Colorado, Sonora, and the Mojave. On our last day, we were able to meet Tara Kneeshaw, '01, a geochemistry professor at California State University Fullerton and participant on the very first EI trip.
Chelsea Smith, Kara Sherman, Lisa Anderson and William Armstrong in Joshua Tree National Park

Catie Castell on the Pacific Crest Trail in the Santa Rosa Mountains
Allison Vial, Zaak Havens, Zane Havens, William Armstrong, Lisa Anderson hike through Anza Borrego State Park.Allison Vial, Zaak Havens, Zane Havens, William Armstrong, Lisa Anderson hike through Anza Borrego State Park. Tim Lincoln photos