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

Fed Agency OKs Controversial Power Storage Project Near Joshua Tree NP

The Eagle Mountain mine, site of a proposed hydroelectric power storage project | Photo: Chris Clarke | KCETLink

A federal agency has given the go-ahead to a power storage project adjacent to Joshua Tree National Park that opponents say could seriously harm both the park's wildlife and local groundwater.

The Eagle Mountain Pumped Storage Project, proposed for the old Kaiser Eagle Mountain mine in Riverside County's Chuckwalla Valley would store and release surplus electrical power by pumping water between two reservoirs. During the day when local solar and wind energy plants produce power, the water would be pumped uphill, then allowed to run downhill through turbines to recoup some of that energy when renewable energy sources aren't producing power.

But the plan calls for 21,000 acre-feet of water in those reservoirs, and project proponent Eagle Crest Energy plans to get that water -- and the 100,000 acre-feet needed to replace evaporated water over the project's 50-year lifespan -- from the local aquifer. That has locals worried about water availability and quality, and the presence of huge reservoirs in the middle of the desert poses problems for Joshua Tree's beleaguered wildlife.

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The project would cost $1.5 billion and would generate a maximum of 1,300 megawatts of power.

"We are shocked to see [the The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission] permit this terrible project, which will doom the local ancient aquifer in the Chuckwalla Valley and permanently change the desert landscape in Joshua Tree National Park," Ileene Anderson, a senior scientist with the Center for Biological Diversity, told Ian James of the Desert Sun.

Chief among the problems for National Park wildlife is the likelihood that open water will serve as a subsidy for ravens, which are a major predator of the federally Threatened desert tortoise, especially juveniles. Ravens are native to the California desert, but their numbers have been increased substantially by the presence of water and food waste brought in by people, and large numbers of the birds attracted by the new water source pose an undeniable threat to the Park's tortoises.

The project could also subsidize coyotes in much the same way, with similar effects on the tortoise and other sensitive species vulnerable to predation by coyotes.

Also of concern: the possibility that the highly fractured rock in the old mine site will prove more porous than Eagle Crest anticipates, causing loss of reservoir water -- and contamination of the aquifer as that water percolates through old mine waste back into the valley floor.

Eagle Crest's Steve Lowe responded to such concerns by telling the Desert Sun that the reservoirs would be lined with mine tailings.

FERC's approval doesn't mean the project's a go: the Bureau of Land Management still has to sign off on a transmission line that would run across public land, and BLM's parent agency, the Department of the Interior, isn't sold on the project. The National Park Service, also an Interior agency, has observed that groundwater levels are already dropping in the area. Though Interior has a history of dismissing NPS concerns over the environment when renewable energy development is concerned. In 2012, the Department asked state and federal agencies to reconsider their approval of the project.

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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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