By Kathleen Wong, UC Natural Reserve System
Operating a field station in the midst of the eastern Mojave Desert is no mean feat. Just as Jim André, director of the UC Natural Reserve System’s Sweeney Granite Mountains Desert Research Center. Towns with gas and supplies are almost 90 miles away, housing is limited, and any water or electricity must be produced on site.
André has built the reserve into a thriving hub for research and teaching since taking the reins 27 years ago. Researchers and university classes from California and around the world flock to the Granites to study the vast and exceptionally intact Mojave Desert ecosystem.
Yet the same isolation that attracts so much science has made it supremely difficult to maintain and operate reserve facilities. Staff have largely continued to use the buildings already on site when the reserve was established in 1978. These include cobbled-together homesteader houses and water systems built in the 1920s. By 2010, many of these facilities were either insufficient to meet the reserve’s current needs, or in violation of modern health and safety standards.
“We struggled for years to get those problems resolved by whatever means,” André says.
The reserve and its managing campus, UC Riverside, got the opportunity to correct a few of the reserve’s priciest infrastructure problems in 2006. Proposition 84, passed in 2006, provided up to $20 million for NRS capital construction and land acquisition. All funding requested had to be matched by an equivalent amount of University funds. With a combination of funds from the reserve’s endowment and donors, plus in-kind administrative time, the receive qualified for$1.785 million in bond funding.
For André, the first order of business with Prop 84 funding was to augment reserve water supplies by developing a water well system. Though the 100-year old spring-fed water system normally provides Granite Cove with sufficient water, it also has a history of going dry during prolonged drought. During such dry periods, André has had to impose drastic water conservation measures, or temporarily close down reserve operations.
The well drillers contracted for the job were confident they’d hit a gusher. But that self-assurance evaporated soon after their bit hit the ground.
“Six feet down, they hit some of the hardest granite they’ve ever encountered; they had never seen anything that resisted their equipment like this,” André said. At 700 feet, the drill shaft bent, requiring the operators to backfill the hole to a depth of 500 feet. All the while, the site remained bone dry.
Frustrated, the crew tried their luck at a second site. At 500 feet, this well generated enough water to produce 50–100 gallons per day—not the hoped for gusher, but worthwhile to case and outfit with a solar pump.
A month later, André and the well contractor went back to the first well to cap it. To their surprise, they found it filled with water. Initial estimates indicated it was generating about 100 gallons a day, so it too was developed.
Both wells, along with upgrades to water storage tanks and delivery pipes, were completed in 2015. “Though not as productive as we’d hoped for, the two wells provide us with a means to manage through dry periods when the old spring-fed system completely dries up,” says André.
Laying the foundation for a workable lab
The next project was to correct a flaw in the reserve’s Allanson Laboratory building. Built in 1992, the laboratory was erected around a metal lab trailer. However, the slab foundation wasn’t extended beneath the trailer.
“It was absurd trying to use the building when half the floor was exposed dirt,” Andre says. Without a proper foundation, the building wouldn’t stay warm in winter. Worse, rodents found their way into the building. “We would leave specimens of plants or insects on the counter, and the next morning find them removed or eaten by woodrats.”
The urine and droppings of the rodents also posed a serious hantavirus risk. “It got to the point where I wouldn’t let researchers work in the lab because of liability concerns,” Andre says. Lacking another option, staff continued to use the cramped area as an office, shivering in winter and shooing snakes and scorpions out the door the rest of the year.
The removal of the trailer, and the completion of the foundation, “is a really dramatic improvement. We now have workspace for up to 10 researchers, and sufficient room for the herbarium and other collections,” André says.
A meeting room with a view
Next door to the laboratory now stands a new reserve administration building. The crown jewel of this 2,100 square-foot structure is a meeting room with large windows framing the dramatic granite boulders and scenic desert outside. Display cabinets at the perimeter of the room enable the room to serve as an exhibit hall as well.
“We had very limited indoor seating before. This is a really nice space that goes a long way to heighten the value of the field station in the eyes of distinguished visitors,” André says. Those visitors have included U.S. senators, BBC broadcaster David Attenborough, and many government agency administrators and donors.
The steel-framed building also includes staff offices, a kitchenette, bathroom, and storage room, plus an exterior patio. The structure is also fully ADA compliant.
The administrative building also bolstered the reserve’s electric power supplies. The Granites’ original set of solar panels were located on the lab building, which was shaded a third of the year by rock pinnacles. The new array atop the administration building is much larger, receives more sun, and connects to a modern battery array. The new system has increased the reserve’s electricity generating capacity by a whopping 400 percent. “We can actually run experiments that require heat lamps now,” André says.
A walkway connects the Administration Building to both the laboratory and a new visitor housing duplex. The building was originally designed to sleep four, but the design-build contractor shrank it down from 280 square feet to 180 square feet, enough to hold only two beds. The new duplex housing brings the indoor bed capacity of the Allanson Center, the building complex at the heart of the reserve, to 14.
Renewing a reserve residence
The last project to be completed involved renovations to a staff residence located near the entrance to Granite Cove. Built by a homesteading family in the 1920s, the house was haphazardly enlarged over time using railroad ties, beer kegs, and other materials that could be scrounged from the desert.
For years, the house had rained asbestos roof tiles into the yard, exposing staff and visitors to toxic materials.
The house’s other major shortcoming was the shoddy quality of its construction. It seemed to attract wildlife seeking indoor shelter. “Rodents in the walls chewing wires caused three different fires. Animals living in the attic space included skunks, ringtails, and owls,” André says.
The renovations involved not only replacing the roof but enlarging the attic with a dormer, as well as rebuilding the roof trusses, rafters, and rooftop. The ladder-style stairway to the second-floor was replaced with a safer stairway that met California building code. Most interior walls were replaced, and the house’s fragile electrical and plumbing systems were upgraded as well.
Now sealed against critters and more capacious to boot, the building will now become housing for a part-time or visiting NRS staff, or the occasional research group.
A stretched timeline
The reserve’s five Prop. 84 project components were originally scheduled for completion within three years. By the time work wrapped up in late 2020, the timeline had stretched to a shocking thirteen years.
“The problem with doing renovations in an extremely remote and ecologically sensitive area is that it’s logistically daunting for campus planners. We presented them with conditions they had never encountered before, and it took time to resolve issues that would be considered minor if on campus.” As a case in point, André points to regulations requiring fire sprinklers in the ceilings of all new construction. “Our water system infrastructure lacks the water pressure and supply necessary to support that option.”
Numerous problems with the design-build concept delayed matters further. André wrangled and negotiated with the builder and UCR project managers to resolve basic matters ranging from the costs of importing soil fill to support the laboratory foundation slab, to whether new windows should be operable, to the reality that electric heaters were inappropriate for an off-grid photovoltaic system.
The fact that these projects were ultimately completed, says André, is also a testament to the cooperation of the state Wildlife Conservation Board, which disbursed the bond funding. “We tested every measure of patience and professionalism as this project unfolded. Yet over and over WCB were incredibly understanding in holding those funds until the completion of the project. It was remarkable how they stood by us,” he says.
Notwithstanding the innumerable delays and unforeseen headaches associated with the projects, André says the reserve is far more functional and safe as a result of the work. “These five components were just five out of 80 things need to be done at this field station. But we’ve preserved half of our staff housing by renovating the house. We’ve made our lab usable again to visitors. And we now have healthy environments for people to live and work in, including staff who have to do their jobs here as well as researchers.”