News and analysis about energy in California with an eye toward renewables.

Feds Set to Green Light Solar Plant In Protected Wildlife Zone

The reclusive flat-tailed horned lizard | Photo: gwarciita/Flickr/Creative Commons License

At no more than 14 megawatts of planned capacity, San Diego Gas & Electric's proposed Ocotillo Sol power plant is a lot smaller than many desert solar projects. But it's still got wildlife and cultural protection activists concerned: the project would occupy 115 acres of Imperial County's Yuha Desert that had been set aside for protection by the feds.

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Despite its location within the 63,000-acre Yuha Basin Area of Critical Environmental Concern (ACEC) the Interior Department has nonetheless proceeded with environmental assessment on the project. The BLM announced Friday that the project's Final Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) is now available, as is a proposed Amendment to the California Desert Conservation Area (CDCA) management plan for the Yuha Desert that would allow the project to proceed.

ACECs are area designated by the BLM as meriting protection or other special management due to environmental values, cultural resources, scenic value, or natural hazards such as avalanche chutes. In the Yuha Basin's case, the ACEC was established in part due to the area's astonishing cultural resources, with evidence of millennia of indigenous use of the landscape plainly evident to the untrained eye in many places. The ACEC also holds a stretch of the Juan Bautista de Anza National Historic Trail.

The Yuha Basin ACEC is also home to species of concern such as the burrowing owl and flat-tailed horned lizard, and Ocotillo Sol would also overlap the BLM's Yuha Desert Management Area for the lizard.

According to the project's Final EIS, the project site, adjacent to SDG&E's Imperial Substation, is currently designated a Class L "limited multiple use area" within the CDCA. The EIS takes a stab at explaining how fencing off 115 acres, scraping it clean and then covering it with solar panels constitutes "limited multiple use":

Approximately 4 million acres of public lands within the CDCA are classified as Class L. These lands are managed to protect sensitive, natural, scenic, ecological, and cultural resource values, which is consistent with the applicable requirements set forth in the Plan. Although Class L generally provides for lower-intensity, carefully controlled multiple uses that do not significantly diminish resource values, solar energy projects such as the Ocotillo Sol Project are permissible so long as they meet applicable requirements set forth in the CDCA Plan.

Which is easy enough when you're amending the plan so that the project will meet its requirements.

As for the flat tailed horned lizard, the retiring and increasingly rare species is nonetheless apparently abundant throughout the project area. Once a candidate for protection under the Endangered Species Act, the lizard was denied that protection in 2011 by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), in part because its habitat was protected in enough areas to satisfy FWS policymakers. The Yuha flat-tailed horned lizard Management Area was cited as one of those areas in FWS' press statement announcing the denial of protection.

And the project's EIS admits the construction and loss of habitat will be a problem:

BLM authorization of a ROW [right of way] grant for the Ocotillo Sol Project would require appropriate mitigation measures and habitat compensation to offset unavoidable residual effects of the project.

Despite the issuance of the Final EIS, Ocotillo Sol still doesn't have that right of way grant: that doesn't happen until the Interior department issues a Record of Decision (ROD) on the proposal. Theoretically that ROD could come down against the project, but that outcome is staggeringly unlikely given the Obama administration's reflexive support of desert solar projects.

This won't be the first time the BLM has okayed an industrial project in the Yuha Basin ACEC: the agency green-lighted a transmission corridor through the ACEC last year.


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About the Author

Chris Clarke is a natural history writer and environmental journalist currently at work on a book about the Joshua tree. He lives in Joshua Tree.
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