News and analysis about renewable energy in California.

Report: Blythe Solar Would Have Serious Impacts On Cultural Resources

Pot sherds and flaked stone like this can be found on and near the Blythe Solar site | Photo: Chris Clarke

A state agency has evaluated the likely effects of a proposed large solar project in eastern Riverside County, and the news isn't good for those interested in the California desert's human history.

According to the staff of the California Energy Commission, which released its staff assessment of the Blythe Solar Power Project (BSSP) Monday, the 4,138-acre, 485-megawatt solar project just west of Blythe would damage or destroy more than 100 important archaeological resources dating from anywhere between the early 20th century and World War II era to prehistoric times. At least seven distinct groups of Native people have used the site in recent centuries.

According to the CEC's staff, "approximately 142 known archaeological resources eligible or assumed eligible for the California Register of Historical Resources" would be impacted by the project.

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The Florida-based NextEra Energy Resources intends to build the project, which it bought and substantially redesigned in October 2012. The previous owner, Solar Millennium, had intended to build 1,000 megawatts' worth of generating capacity on almost 7,000 acres of land using parabolic trough solar technology. That company went bankrupt in 2012 after the Department of the Interior had approved the project; Nextera has re-engineered the proposal to use photovoltaic panels on a significantly smaller patch of land.

The CEC approved the original project in 2010; the current Staff Assessment analyzes the differences between the current and previous designs.

That assessment says that certain impacts have been lessened by the new design's smaller footprint, but says:

Staff has also concluded that the BSPP, in conjunction with the Genesis Solar energy Project and the Palen Solar Power Project [sic], would have a cumulatively considerable impact on two cultural landscapes, the Prehistoric Trails Network Cultural Landscape, encompassing region-wide prehistoric trails and the resources and destinations they connected, and the Desert Training Center California-Arizona Maneuver Area Cultural Landscape, comprised of the archaeological remains of the U.S. Army's WWII Desert Training Center.

Not mentioned in the above quote: NextEra's adjacent McCoy Solar Power Project, which would occupy around 4,200 acres of desert just north of BSPP.

Construction had barely begun on the previous iteration of the Blythe project when its previous owner went belly-up, mainly limited to clearing a stretch of desert that had been home to several geoglyphs held as culturally important by the Blythe-based La Cuna de Aztlan Sacred Sites Protection Circle. Though a BLM archaeologist made a highly publicized claim that the damaged geoglyphs did not exist prior to the 1990s, that view was not uniformly popular among Native cultural activists, who rallied to oppose the land clearance.

In any event, the CEC staff assessment discusses many other less-disputed cultural sites within the BSPP area, including trails, cairns, "pot drops," and lithic scatters.

ReWire expects the geoglyphs and other cultural sites to figure large in public response to the Blythe Solar Power Project's approval process. Stay tuned.

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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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