Sand Trapped : Residents Along Part of Mojave River Dig In for Battle Over Drifting Dunes


You look around Joe Marino’s place here, halfway between Los Angeles and Las Vegas, and there is no doubt he lives in the desert. There is sand everywhere.

It isn’t just that the sand has filled up his toolshed so that he cannot get inside it, or that it has settled so high around the big tree out back that he can now walk into the treehouse.

The sand is in his house. On the windowsills, on the floors, in the cupboards, in the furniture, in the clothes hanging in the closet.

Marino used to laugh about it. “Now I cry and ask, ‘Why me, Lord?’

“I’ve spent $10,000, easy, to try to keep the sand back,” he said. “That’s money that I was going to spend on my children’s education.”


A former neighbor, Marguerite Paduano, describes the sand as some inescapable monster from a B horror flick, slowly and methodically marching its way down the dry Mojave River and holding her mobile home hostage.

The sand has destroyed four videotape recorders, she said, and has gotten onto the tapes. And into the TV and into her expensive 35-millimeter cameras. And her kitchen appliances. Everything.

She would shower at night and, if the wind was blowing, she would shower again in the morning, shake out her sheets and wash them before going to bed that night. Then she would clean out the grayish goop in the bottom of her washing machine.

“My mother is a semi-invalid and watches TV, and if she sits still for 20 minutes, we have to dust her off,” Paduano said. The problem got so bad that she finally abandoned her property and moved to Victorville.

But the sand is not invading homes just a couple of hundred yards off to the side in either direction. Over there, the desert floor is compacted, covered with rock, brush and desert grasses. There are no sand dunes.

Marino’s, Paduano’s and six other homes sit on a six-mile stretch along the riverbed. The homeowners say their properties have been blasted and blanketed with sand thanks to San Bernardino County road crews.


From 1979 to 1991, county maintenance crews cleared sand that was building up on and beside Minneola Road, which crosses the river, and dumped it on the downwind, or east, side of the road in the Mojave River channel. Tons of it, year after year after year.

The deposited sand would blow away and more would be dumped in its place. “Nobody at the county stopped to wonder where all that sand was going that they dumped there the previous time,” Paduano said. “What did they think, that the sandman came at night with a lot of little Baggies?”

The problem, residents say, was clear to them: The prevailing westerly wind blew that loose sand onto their properties on Newberry Road. Sand dunes six, eight, 10 feet tall have built up in their yards. Ponds and pastures are now one huge sandbox.

Mary Case can walk onto the roof of her place by walking up the sand piled along the back of the house. Marino installed a $2,000 snow fence to try to protect his property; the fence is now buried. And the bulldozer he bought to keep his property clear of sand is now trapped in its own sand dune.

The residents complained to county bureaucrats, who hired a sand expert to study their claims. He agreed there is a problem.

“Although accurate quantification is impossible, it seems clear that the relocation of sand at Minneola Road resulting from highway maintenance activities has contributed to sand encroachment in the vicinity of Newberry Road,” said Ronald D. Tabler, the sand-and-snow expert from Niwot, Colo.

The sand, he said, also “presents a serious health hazard to residents.”

County officials realized that they had trouble. Their own expert said so. Marsha Turoci, a member of the County Board of Supervisors whose district includes Newberry Springs, saw for herself.

“I was standing out there with tears rolling down my face,” she said. “I thought, oh my God, this can’t be happening. This is a nightmare.”

The road crews stopped dumping the sand when the first complaints surfaced in 1991. But Turoci and other county officials were not ready to accept the entire blame. Other people--pipeline contractors working for utility companies, off-road enthusiasts, wood scavengers along the river bottom, you name it--are responsible for creating loose sand too, Turoci said.

“Our hearts go out to these people . . . but what can we do? We told them they probably would have to go to court because we couldn’t really pinpoint who was to blame and where they could turn to for relief.”

So last September, the homeowners sued the county, demanding about $6 million in damages so they could pack up and leave.

But the county filed a lawsuit of its own. The county is not exclusively to blame for this problem, its lawyer contended; other people share responsibility for this mess, too.

The county’s lawsuit asks that any liability be shared with many of the area’s property owners, ranging from the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, AT & T and Southern California Edison, to more than a dozen residents who draw water from the river basin.

Although the county’s lawsuit does not explain why it wants to share the blame, lawyers involved say utilities are being blamed for unsettling the crusty surface of the desert floor by installing utility lines, and the residents are targeted for pumping too much water from beneath the riverbed, causing it to go even drier and sandier.

The county’s lawyer refused to discuss the case. But the county’s lawsuit could have a staggering repercussion.

For years, individual water users and public water agencies up and down the Mojave River--from Victorville to Daggett--have been sucking up water from beneath the Mojave water basin faster than it is being replenished. Recently, the city of Barstow and the Southern California Water Co. sued to try to force some water-use restrictions.

After intensive settlement talks, a complex water rights pact is on the verge of approval. The agreement sets limits on how much water everyone can use and forces them to pay for extra consumption; the money will be used to buy imported water to replenish the basin.

Attorneys say the counter-lawsuit by San Bernardino County jeopardizes that water-rights agreement because the parties may now be reluctant to legally acknowledge that they draw water from the basin.

“If the county’s lawsuit moves forward, we’ll object to the water rights adjudication and that agreement will just blow up,” said Patrick Munoz, attorney for the Newberry Springs Community Services District. “We’re on the verge of solving a 20-year-old problem, teetering on who has right to water, and now we’re being blamed for causing blowing sand? It’s nuts.”

Turoci said she hopes that the county’s lawsuit does not jeopardize the historic water rights agreement. She said the Board of Supervisors last week instructed its attorney to back off the small water users.

In the meantime, the sand dunes continue to blow, and still more are headed toward the residents along Newberry Road. Only Paduano has moved, although she still owns her property here; the others cannot walk away from their mortgages, and they know that nobody will buy their properties.

For Charlotte Mitchell, the worst is over--but the damage is done. She has lived on the family horse ranch since 1948, the home closest to the downwind side of Minneola Road.

For years, she rented horses to for pleasure riding and had a brisk horse trading business. She flips through the photographs of the good old days, of lots of horses and lots of green pastureland.

Now, outside her window, all she sees are corrals filled with sand. It got to her first, before heading east.

Instead of a lawn mower, her version of yard equipment is a dump truck.

“In 40 years, we never had a sand problem, and we’ve been through drought and wind. Then this,” she said. “How can it be explained, except that it’s man-made?”

Her son, James, lives next doOr and works for the railroad.

“We’ve basically lost this place,” he said. “It’s a living hell. I used to grow alfalfa on 40 acres, but my fields have been sandblasted. All my equipment is destroyed. The sand has ruined the magnetic switches in my irrigation equipment.

“This has been our home,” he said. “I was born here. And now we’re watching it be destroyed right in front of us.”