Retired National Park Leaders Oppose Soda Mountain Solar

The Soda Mountain Solar project could dry up springs near Soda Lake in the Mojave National Preserve | Photo: "Mike" Michael L. Baird/Flickr/Creative Commons License

Five retired National Park Service Superintendents who spent a cumulative 35 years managing California's three desert National Parks are asking the Bureau of Land Management to move a 4,000-acre solar project they say would threaten the Mojave National Preserve's wildlife, views and groundwater.

In a letter to BLM California Desert District staff, the five also contend the Soda Mountain Solar project would violate local ordinances regulating renewable energy facilities. They're asking the BLM to issue a new Supplemental Draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for the project that would take a serious look at alternative locations for the project, and extend public comment on the project by another 60 days.

The project, which would straddle both sides of Interstate 15 near Baker and abut both the Preserve and a nearby wilderness study area, has been roundly criticized for its environmental impacts and the lack of demand for the 350 or so megawatts the project would generate at its maximum.

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The five signers of the letter are J.T. Reynolds, who served as Superintendent at Death Valley National Park from 2001-2009, Mary Martin and Dennis Schramm, who ran the Mojave National Preserve from 1995-2005 and 2006-2011 respectively, and Joshua Tree National Park superintendents Curt Sauer and Mark Butler, who managed that park from 2002-2-10 and 2010-2014, respectively. (Butler also wrote an Op-Ed slamming the project for the LA Times that we reported on earlier this week.)

The letter was addressed to BLM staff including state director Jim Kenna, California Desert District Director Terry Raml, and senior staff Katrina Symons and Jeffrey Childers, both of whom are responsible for aspects of the BLM's work on Soda Mountain Solar.

"We are proud of our public service, maintaining the public trust and dedicating our lives to the stewardship and protection of the California desert national parks' spectacular natural and cultural resources," reads the letter. "We have a life-long covenant with the American people to protect special places for present and future generations. We respectfully request that the Soda Mountains Solar Project be relocated and that a supplemental draft EIS be published that would identify and evaluate alternative project locations in a broader locale than was identified in the draft EIS, with a corresponding 60 day comment period."

The Soda Mountain Solar project, which the engineering firm Bechtel bought from originator Caithness Solar, has yet to secure a power purchase agreement for any of the electricity its approximately 2,500 acres of photovoltaic panels would generate. That was at least part of the reason Caithness unloaded the apparently moribund project to Bechtel. Though two transmission lines run through the site, one is at capacity. The other supplies power to a consortium of municipal utilities including LA's Department of Water and Power, none of which have displayed interest in buying power from the project.

Despite this seemingly formidable downside to the project, the BLM's draft EIS dismissed any consideration of alternative locations for Soda Mountain Solar, claiming that no other sites in the vicinity were superior. (That's an odd argument, considering that any power generated by the project would likely be sold to users hundreds of miles away, along the populated California coast.)

The letter from the five retired superintendents marks an interesting turn in the project's evolution. Communication between the BLM and the National Park Service seems not to be happening otherwise. The Mojave National Preserve staff's formal comments on the project's draft EIS almost begged for a meeting with BLM staff, which meeting a casual observer might have expected would have been set up by BLM out of due diligence.

Even more startlingly, maps prepared by the BLM earlier this year for public meetings on the project somehow didn't include the Mojave National Preserve boundaries, in some places less than a half mile from the project fenceline.

The retired Superintendents' letter spells out the harm they fear the project will do in plain English:

The project threatens bighorn sheep migration corridors, desert tortoise habitat, the integrity of adjacent wilderness study and the Mojave National Preserve. Moreover, its groundwater pumping could harm water quality and quantity at MC Spring in the Mojave National Preserve, the home of the federally endangered tui chub, one of our most unique and rare desert fish.

The letter also notes that a new San Bernardino County ordinance strictly limits renewable energy development within two miles of the Preserve.

We'll see if the BLM pays any more heed to this letter than it has to the formal comments made by Preserve staff. If the BLM does heed the letter, it would go a long way to reassure the public that the agencies charged with protecting our public lands can actually work together.

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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