It's been called California's Serengeti: a broad and expansive grassland with remarkable biodiversity nestled among the hills of the southern Coast Ranges. Fifty miles long and up to ten miles across, the Carrizo Plain is home to 13 species listed under the state and federal Endangered Species Acts as endangered or threatened, the densest concentration of Endangered Species in the state. Dozens of additional species that are candidates for further protection occur here too, and at least two animals that were once extirpated from the Plain but which have since been reintroduced: the tule elk and the pronghorn.
The Carrizo Plain has something else in abundance, too: sunshine. Lots of it. In fact, outside of the deserts, the Plain is one of the sunniest places in California. That sunlight has, unsurprisingly, drawn attention to the Plain from solar energy developers. We've previously reported on local environmental groups suing to block construction of the 250-megawatt California Valley Solar Ranch. Two of those plaintiffs, North County Watch and Carrizo Commons, have now filed suit to block the even larger Topaz Solar Farm, which would have a maximum capacity of 550 megawatts. Together, the two plants would occupy more than 16 square miles of the Carrizo Plain.
The second suit was filed on August 15, just a few days after a much-heralded announcement that several major environmental organizations had reached an agreement with the developers of the two projects. According to a press release sent out by those organizations and the developers, the agreement included purchase of mitigation land, removal of wire fences from other parts of the Plain, and a commitment by the developers not to use rat poison.
"Jerry Brown's office called a meeting with the major environmental groups and with those of us who are local," said Susan Harvey, President of North County Watch. "They hammered out this agreement that the big groups signed off on. We couldn't. We didn't think it was that great of a deal."
The groups that signed were the Sierra Club, Defenders of Wildlife, and the Center for Biological Diversity.
The San Joaquin kit fox, pictured above, is part of the Biological Diversity that stands to lose if the solar plants are built. Once common throughout the San Joaquin Valley, the kit fox -- a small hunter about the size of a housecat -- lost most of its habitat to the plow in the 19th and 20th centuries. This was due in part to straightforward physical disruption of denning sites and hunting territory, and in part to the fact that one of the kit fox's chief prey animals, the giant kangaroo rat, was also being plowed out of house and home throughout the Central Valley. Both species now persist only in the relatively intact grasslands to the west of the San Joaquin Valley, including the Carrizo Plain. The giant k-rat is down to about two percent of its original range, and the once-ubiquitous kit fox was down to 7,000 individuals two decades ago.
Though the Topaz site would occupy land that has been used for agriculture, Susan Harvey says that it's still good potential kit fox habitat. "Unlike places like Westlands, where the land has been so badly damaged that no wildlife will ever come back there, this land can recover," said Harvey. "Biologists have surveyed the land with scat dogs -- dogs trained to sniff out animal scat -- and they found 18 distinct family groups of kit fox on the Topaz site. If ag lets this land recover, it will come back as habitat."
If agriculture gives way to solar development, however, the kit fox and its kangaroo rat prey stand to lose a major migration corridor between the 250,000-acre Carrizo Plain National Monument, south of the solar sites, and the relatively undeveloped land to the north past Highway 58.
If the solar plants go in the Plain's charismatic reintroduced pronghorn may lose their toehold on the land as well. Unlike other large mammals such as elk and bighorn sheep, pronghorn are creatures of the flats -- they shun land that's at more than about a two percent grade. This puts them in direct competition with solar developers, who also crave the flattest parts of the valley floor.
Something less concrete may be lost if the heart of the Carrizo Plain is developed for solar as well. In 2009 Peter Douglas -- Executive Director of the California Coastal Commission, who recently announced he would retire in November after 26 years -- wrote an impassioned letter to the San Luis Obispo Board of Supervisors, in which he urged them to keep industrial solar development out of the Carrizo Plain. That letter said, in part,
It would be a travesty were we to destroy rare, irreplaceable public places in nature and deprive unborn generations the blessings of what should rightfully be their natural heritage. I have no doubt, that if the proposed industrial solar projects are built on the Carrizo Plain the essence of this National Monument will be destroyed. I am not saying don't build industrial scale solar complimented by distributed small scale energy production and distribution (e.g., solar on rooftops, built and degraded lands coupled with robust fiscal incentives). I am saying there are alternative locations that won't destroy the Monument and that avoid major ecological damage. We must tell applicants to find better locations. Clearly, we can both save precious places and dramatically reduce green house gases: This is not an "either or" situation.
The argument that we must sacrifice fragile ecosystems for the common good (i.e., major impingement on the Carrizo to save the planet from climate change) is specious, relies on a false choice, and reflects a myopic view of the common good. Do we seriously believe a single coal-fired or nuclear plant will not be built or shut down if the Carrizo solar projects are constructed? Of course we must do our part to address climate change but not at the expense of an irreplaceable community jewel.
In David Darlington's 1987 book In Condor Country, a profile of the Carrizo Plain and two of its long-time defenders, the brothers Eben and Ian MacMillan, Darlington said of the Carrizo Plain that "it resembles the California of popular imagination in no way whatsoever." Darlington was right. Hotter and more arid than the lands that surround it, it resembles nothing more than a desert valley that some determined giant had carved out of the western Mojave and towed halfway to Pismo Beach. It's a landscape that is unique in California, and it deserves better than being turned into another enterprise zone for the energy industry.
Chris Clarke is an environmental writer of two decades standing. Author of Walking With Zeke, he writes regularly at his acclaimed blog Coyote Crossing and comments on desert issues here every Tuesday. He's also a co-founder of Solar Done Right and thus doesn't even try to pretend to be an impartial observer of solar development on California's wildlands. He lives in Palm Springs.