Controversial Imperial County Wind Project to Proceed For Now

The plain behind these cacti would be filled with turbines streatching as far as the mountain range. | Photo courtesy Larry Hogue

Long before anyone in the news media got to the story, Quechan elder and singer Preston Arrow-Weed had already made the regretful, all-caps-urgent announcement on Facebook: Federal district court judge William Q. Hays had rejected the tribe's request to stop construction of the 10,150-acre Ocotillo Express wind project next to Anza Borrego Desert State Park.

The request was made as part of a May 14 complaint in the US District Court, which claimed that the Interior Department's May 11 approval of the 112-turbine wind development violated federal environmental and Native rights laws. The Quechan asked last week that Hays grant a temporary restraining order halting work on the project until further study of the site's immense archaeological value could be performed.

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Arrow-Weed's post was succinct:

ANOTHER SAD DAY TODAY WITH THE ANNOUNCEMENT THAT JUDGE HAYS DENIED THE QUECHAN THE RESTRAINING ORDER TO STOP DESTRUCTION OF OCOTILLO SACRED SITES.

Construction on the project, in the southwesternmost portion of Imperial County near the hamlet of Ocotillo, started as soon as the ink was dry on Interior's Record of Decision approving the fast-tracked wind installation. Contractors working for project developer Pattern Energy have been pulling extra shifts for the last week in preliminary construction work on the project, Ocotillo resident Edie Harmon informed a meeting of desert protection activists this weekend.

At issue is a stretch of intact Yuha desert habitat that is home to the Federally endangered Peninsular bighorn sheep and the flat-tailed horned lizard, a perennial candidate for listing under the Endangered Species Act. The turbines on the site would stand 450 feet tall with blades more than 180 feet long. With blades of that length, if the turbines spin at a leisurely 10 rpm the speed of the blade tips will approach 140 miles per hour, a serious threat to the region's migratory birds -- including the protected golden eagle.

Project map via Pattern Energy with notation of residences by Jim Pelley

The power generated by Ocotillo Express, up to 315 megawatts worth, would be transmitted to San Diego over the controversial Sunrise Powerlink, now under construction. The project is one in a network of planned solar, wind, and geothermal projects slated for Imperial and eastern San Diego counties, as well as the mountains in neighboring Baja California.

Pattern Energy's project will destroy broad swaths of desert pavement and ocotillo-creosote vegetation in an area with some of the highest concentrations of Native cultural and archaeological sites in the lower 48. The Quechan and other area Native people have opposed the project from the beginning. Prior to filing, tribal researchers scoured the project site with cadaver-trained dogs, and they say the dogs led them to a number of cremation sites.

As a result of cultural and environmental concerns, the Quechan Tribal Council voted in May to oppose the project, filing suit soon after. Quechan Tribal Council President Kenny Escalanti spoke about Quechan opposition to the project last week, in a demonstration outside Pattern Energy's headquarters in La Jolla:

Environmental organizations and residents' groups are strongly opposed to the project as well. Ocotillo Express will share five miles of boundary with Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, California's largest. Anza Borrego is crucial habitat for the endangered Peninsular bighorn sheep, and the area that would be occupied by Ocotillo Express is used by the sheep as well. In the last year, sheep have been observed onsite grazing at altitudes well below their usual mountainous haunts, an indication of the habitat's importance.

There are fewer than 1,000 Peninsular bighorn left in the US, but the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) still issued a Biological Opinion for the Ocotillo Express project that allowed "take" -- harassment, relocation, injury or death -- of as many as 10 Peninsular bighorn; up to five each of ewes and lambs. Former Superintendent of Anza Borrego Mark Jorgensen, a bighorn sheep biologist, was unsparing in his comments on the FWS biological opinion on Ocotillo Express's impact on the bighorn:

The USF&WS reveals many potential threats the Ocotillo Wind Energy Facility poses to bighorn and bighorn habitat, but for each case it makes, it sells out and makes weak excuses to support the development of the wind turbine project. A constant theme throughout the [Biological Opinion] is that even though a threat to bighorn or its habitat exists, the construction of wind turbines will not threaten the overall population of bighorn or the long-term recovery of the endangered population in the Peninsular Ranges. They have chosen their words carefully. Toward the end of the [Biological Opinion] the Service actually makes it clear that as many as five bighorn ewes and five lambs may be "Taken", which means they could be forced to move off their current range, could be subject to harassment by the project, and may even die as a result of project action - all permitted by USF&WS.

Air quality is already taking a hit from construction of the project. As I reported here last year, the desert soil type known as "desert pavement" helps control particulate matter counts in desert air by trapping dust. When it's disturbed, it can release the dust it has trapped over centuries, raising the incidence of dust-borne diseases such as valley fever and asthma. The Ocotillo Express site once held some of the most intact desert pavement surfgaces I've ever seen. Heavy equipment has breached that pavement, with predictable results shown in this May 17 video by local resident Jim Pelley;

It's worth noting that none of that dust is blowing off the remaining intact desert. Ocotillo residents two miles downwind -- many of them older people -- are already complaining of dust infiltration into their homes. The terms of the BLM's agreement with Pattern Energy stipulate that water be used to control fugitive dust like that seen in the video; no water trucks were on site during Pelley's filming.

Flat tailed horned lizard | Basin and Range Watch photo

Biologist Kevin Emmerich of Basin and Range Watch told me this weekend that the breakneck construction pace poses a serious threat to the local flat-tailed horned lizards as well. "They're doing grading at night," Emmerich said. "The flat-tails burrow underground at night. During the day the lizards have a chance to run away from the equipment, but at night they won't see it coming, and the monitors won't see the lizards. When they use that heavy equipment at night, they're crushing flat-tailed horned lizards."

As a result of the dire environmental consequences of the project, a coalition of Native, local, sportsmen's and environmental groups have called for a national moratorium on so-called "fast-tracked" renewable energy projects on public lands, arguing that environmental reviews have been short-circuited. "This industrial wind project is symbolic of what's wrong with the current federal fast-tracking process," said Terry Weiner, of San Diego's Desert Protective Council. "We are the canaries in the coal mine. If this is not stopped here, destruction of millions of acres of public lands across the southwest will likely soon follow."

Chris Clarke is an environmental writer of two decades standing. Director of Desert Biodiversity, he writes from Palm Springs regularly at his acclaimed blog Coyote Crossing and comments on desert issues on KCET weekly. Read his recent posts here.

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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