California's ambitious plan to manage the development of renewable energy in more than 22 million acres of desert lands is approaching a major turning point, and the public has less than a week left to comment on five alternative scenarios that may remake the California desert.
The Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan (DRECP), mandated by the same law that is raising California's Renewable Portfolio Standard to 33 percent by 2020, has set a rather short deadline of August 8 for public comments on its five alternative scenarios, which focus renewable energy development on between 1.2 and 2.2 million acres of the desert, depending on the scenario.
The DRECP plan area includes all or part of the counties of Imperial, Inyo, Kern, Los Angeles, Riverside, San Bernardino and San Diego. It is being prepared by the Renewable Energy Action Team, a consortium of state and federal agencies including the California Energy Commission, California Department of Fish and Game, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Though sometimes confused with the Federal solar PEIS process, with which it has run concurrently, the DRECP covers only the state of California, and encompasses planning for wind and geothermal energy development as well. The DRECP is part of the state's Natural Community Conservation Planning process. The plan has ambitous and far-reaching goals, including providing a framework for enforcement of state and federal endangered species laws as desert renewable energy projects are proposed and built.
And the possible geographic sweep of those projects is also pretty darned broad, at least as described in DRECP's alternatives. All five alternatives include broad swaths of the western Mojave Desert from Lucerne Valley through Ridgecrest as Development Focus Areas, as well as large expanses in the Coachella and Imperial Valleys, and smaller areas near Blythe and Desert Center. Alternatives 3, 4, and 5 add lands in the Morongo Basin, some of it subject to the protracted fight over the controversial Green Path North transmission line. Alternative 4 would focus more emphasis on the southeastern corner of the state, in the Imperial Valley, along the Interstate 10 corridor, and in the Colorado River Valley, while Alternative 5, with more Development Focus Areas than any of the other alternatives, would include areas near Ludlow, the Silurian Valley south of Shoshone, the California section of the Pahrump Valley, and parts of the Owens Valley near Independence.
Alternative 1 also includes the PEIS's variance zones, as shown on the map below. The DRECP plan must be reconciled with the PEIS, and there are rumors that the Interior Department is applying pressure on DRECP's team to make that reconciliation happen sooner rather than later.
As you might expect the DRECP has attracted the notice of conservationists throughout its history, and this comment period is no exception. Morongo Basin conservationists, for instance, have noted with some horror the inclusion in alternatives 3-5 of a great deal of land immediately north of Joshua Tree National Park, especially Alternative 5's inclusion of seemingly all of the Pioneertown-Pipes Canyon area, and Alternative 1's inclusion of PEIS "variance lands" in a broad swath north of Highway 62.
Conservationist concern over the DRECP process found its most authoritative voice in an October 2010 document prepared by the DRECP's independent science advisors, a dozen leading desert scientists who examined the broad conservation context in which the DRECP process takes place. Their "Recommendations" document is a thorough look at renewable energy's potential effects on the desert. A capsule summary of their findings occurs early in the document's Executive Summary:
[S]iting and developing energy projects must be done carefully to avoid unnecessary damage to fragile desert ecosystems. Desert species and ecological communities are already severely stressed by human changes to the landscape, including urbanization, roads, transmission lines, invasive species, and disturbances by recreational, military, mining, and other activities. Additional stress from large-scale energy developments, in concert with a changing climate, portends further ecological degradation and the potential for species extinctions.