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McCoy Desert Solar Project Jumps Hurdle

Intact Colorado Desert riparian wash habitat on the site of the proposed McCoy Solar Energy Project | Photo: BLM

The BLM released the Final Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) Thursday for the McCoy Solar Energy Project, a milestone in the project's path toward a probably inevitable approval by the U.S. Department of the Interior. The 750-megawatt photovoltaic project is being proposed by NextEra Energy Resources through its subsidiary, McCoy Solar, for 4,437 acres of mostly undisturbed desert on the east side of the McCoy Mountains near Blythe.

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The project would also involve construction of about 16 miles of "gen-tie" transmission line from the project to Southern California Edison's Colorado River Substation on the other side of Interstate 10.

The majority of the land to be occupied by the project is publicly owned.

According to the EIS, the project would cause the loss of 4,500 acres of wildlife habitat, and affect 20 special-status wildlife species through disruption of migratory patterns; impact with powerlines, arrays, poles or vehicles, and increased predation. Those species include desert tortoises, Mojave fringe-toed lizards, Couch's spadefoot toads, golden eagles, burrowing owls, American badgers, kit foxes, and Nelson's bighorn sheep.

The EIS has this to say about tortoises on the site:

Tortoise sign was strongly associated with vegetated, incised drainages on the west portion of the Project site. Other portions of the Project site did not show evidence of current or past tortoise inhabitation (i.e., no scat, burrows, or tortoises were detected), supporting the observation that tortoise use of the site is patchy and that not all potentially suitable habitat is occupied.... Recent tortoise sign (scat and burrows) on the site was grouped into two areas of relatively low concentrations in the northwestern portion of the Project site. One group was associated with a single observed tortoise; the second concentration consisted of adult-sized burrows. Using a 1,980-foot (600-meter) home range radius generates an estimate of two tortoises on the solar plant site. These low densities and uneven use of the Project site, with nearly all use concentrated in the western portion of the Project site and west to the mountains, are consistent with the results from the [Blythe Solar Power Project] surveys in 2009 and 2010.

The Blythe project, delayed since its owner Solar Millennium went out of business earlier this year, is a few miles south of the proposed McCoy plant. NextEra bought Blythe from SolarMillenium as that company dissolved.

Despite the apparent low numbers of tortoise on the McCoy site, the EIS notes the area's importance in connectivity for the species:

Tortoise sign indicating use (i.e., burrows, scat, and tortoises) was noted in the western portion of the BSPP site and areas further west near the McCoy Mountains. The area between the McCoy Mountains and the Project site and BSPP sites forms a continuous corridor of occupied habitat that links tortoise populations north of the Project site to those south of the site.

With the publication of the EIS, parties that have commented on the project have 30 days to file a formal protest. After that period expires, the Interior Department will issue a Record of Decision approving the project. Technically speaking, Interior could also decide not to approve the project, but as Interior's press release today lauds the Department's accomplishments in promoting renewable energy development on public lands in excess of goals set by the Obama administration, we all know that's not going to happen.

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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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Chris, do you know if we can expect anyone of consequence to to file a formal protest against this particular project? If so, how can we support them?