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

CA Signs Off On Controversial Project Next to Joshua Tree Nat'l Park

Eagle Mountain Mine, site of the proposed pumped storage energy project | Photo: Chris Clarke | KCET

A giant energy project that would turn an abandoned open pit mine near Joshua Tree National Park into two hydroelectric storage reservoirs got a thumbs-up from California's main water quality agency this week. The Eagle Mountain Pumped Storage Project, which would use off-peak electrical power to pump water to an upper reservoir, then generate electricity by letting the water flow through turbines during peak demand times, would generate a maximum of 1,300 megawatts of power.

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On Monday, the State Water Resources Control Board (SWRCB) approved the project's Water Quality Certification, a necessary step before the Federal government can approve the project. Because the project has implications for water quality in the area, SWRCB is acting as "Lead Agency," managing the state's permitting responsibilities for the project.

Here's an animated video commissioned by project backer Eagle Crest Energy Company describing the basics of how the project would work. (We'll leave aside the depiction of the surrounding desert as a lifeless parking lot waiting to be filled with industrial energy generation for now.)

The project, in the old Kaiser Eagle Mountain mine surrounded by Joshua Tree National Park, would store a bit more than 21,000 acre-feet of water extracted from the Chuckwalla Valley Aquifer in two reservoirs, each occupying a previous open pit area in the mine. After filling the reservoirs, project operators expect they'll have to "top off" the project by taking another 1,800 acre-feet per year out of the aquifer to replace water lost to seepage and evaporation. That's nearly 587 million gallons of water per year, or enough to fill the Rose Bowl to the brim seven times annually, just to cover evaporation from the existing reservoirs.

The project has been criticized for its likely effect on both the desert's scarce groundwater resources and local wildlife populations. Standing bodies of open water attract ravens, and artificially augmented raven populations are known to pose a threat to the federally Threatened desert tortoise.

The new certification by the state now becomes part of the project's Environmental Impact Statement.

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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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