Archived Story

Thursday, January 2, 2003

Dry lake to be wet again


HINKLEY — Desolate and barren, Harper Dry Lake resembles the surface of a different planet, with its rippled, white soil.

Story PhotoStaff photo by Kelly Donovan
A wooden path leads to the Harper Dry Lake bed in Hinkley. The Bureau of Land Management plans to fill the bed this year with water to simulate conditions that used to exist and hopefully will bring birds back to the area.

But this spring, the dry lake near Hinkley will change. With help from the nonprofit Friends of Harper Lake, the federal Bureau of Land Management plans to pump water into the dry area to create a marsh-like desert oasis.

Harold Johnson, recreation chief at BLM’s Barstow field office, said he hopes the entire project will be done in four to five months, and said he’s excited about it.

“It’s for people who like to bird-watch and view various wildlife,” Johnson said.

The lake bed covers several square miles, and the area covered with water will probably be between 40 and 60 acres, Johnson said. It will be relatively shallow, only a few feet deep in many places.

Because diving ducks require water about 10 to 15 feet deep, there will probably be a deep pond for them, Johnson said.

Once the project is complete, Harper Dry Lake will have boardwalks, concrete benches, trails and a kiosk with information about the site. The BLM has already installed a restroom.

“Harper Dry Lake is a pristine, beautiful dry lake, and we would like to see that kept in a pristine form,” said Henry Orlosky, a co-founder of Friends of Harper Lake.

Plans for a “watchable wildlife area” at Harper Dry Lake have actually been in the works for years, Johnson said. The initial plans were part of the mitigation agreement between the state and the two 80-megawatt solar plants near the dry lake.

The arrangement calls for the plants to give the BLM $60,000 and about 60 acre-feet of water, Johnson said.

But the Mojave Water Agency’s adjudicated settlement can complicate local water transfers, said Orlosky, who owns more than 1,500 acres near Harper Dry Lake. He co-founded Friends of Harper Lake with his business partner, Buck Johns of Inland Energy Inc., to streamline the process of getting the BLM the water.

“If somebody doesn’t provide this service, (BLM) wouldn’t be able to get their water,” Orlosky said. “It’s very difficult, so we ... agreed to help them.”

Although Orlosky, a developer, is not affiliated with the two solar plants near the dry lake, he is involved with plans for future alternative energy facilities in that area.

Harper Dry Lake has been dry since the late 1990s; for decades earlier, it was a marsh, getting its water from the runoff from alfalfa farming at nearby Lockhart Ranch.

According to a desert guidebook, the marsh attracted a diverse assortment of wading birds, songbirds and birds of prey — from white pelicans and marsh wrens to burrowing owls and golden eagles.

Orlosky said increased energy costs for pumping water to the crops in the late 1990s ate up Lockhart Ranch’s profits, and the ranch closed. Orlosky said he acquired the ranch land in 1999.

When the alfalfa farming stopped, the runoff water disappeared, the marsh dried up and most of the birds went elsewhere.

Johnson said the water-pumping project is expected to gradually attract birds back to Harper Dry Lake.

“It’s gonna take a while to come back the way it was, with all that marsh vegetation,” he said. “(But) we’re going to be able to re-hydrate the marsh and get the area into a watchable wildlife area again.”

Eventually, Orlosky said he hopes to install an awning for cars to park under at the dry lake with solar panels on top of it. The solar energy collected could provide electricity for the pumps that pump water to the marsh, he said.

“That’s ultimately what we’d like to do ... so we would be very self-sufficient,” he said. “But initially, we’ll probably use conventional pumps at least for the first year or so.”

The developer said he’s excited about his overall vision for the future of the dry lake area.

“We think we can help the government with their water delivery to the wildlife and also build renewable energy facilities in the area that all blend in with the area and are synergistic,” he said.

If you go ...

Harper Dry Lake is about a 30-minute drive from Barstow. To get there, take Highway 58 toward Hinkley and turn right on Harper Lake Road, then right on Lockhart Road, a bumpy dirt road. The entrance to the dry lake area is about a mile down the road on the left side, marked by white rocks.

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