A massive plan to coordinate renewable energy development across 22 million acres of the California Desert is back, or at least part of it is. Under the plan, permitting for solar, wind, and geothermal development would be streamlined across an area of the California desert the size of Los Angeles and Bakersfield combined. A much larger area of almost 5 million acres would be protected more or less permanently for conservation under the plan.
That news comes with the release Tuesday of a major portion of the Desert Renewable Energy and Conservation Plan (DRECP), which has been in the works since 2008. The portion released this week bears the unwieldy name of the Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS) for Phase 1 of the DRECP. Primarily drawn up by the Bureau of Land Management, the document proposes establishing renewable energy Development Focus Areas (DFAs) on 388,000 acres of public land in the California desert. That's around 606 square miles, approximately the size of Los Angeles and Bakersfield combined.
The Bureau of Land Management expects that only a fraction of that land would actually be developed for solar, wind, or geothermal; the agency estimates that actual proposed projects in the DFAs would cover about 157 square miles, with the permanent disturbance limited to 75 square miles -- an area the size of Victorville.
Most of the 388,000 acres of public lands proposed for streamlined energy development are in Riverside and Imperial counties, with 148,000 acres in Riverside and 109,000 in Imperial. Almost all of Riverside County's DFAs are clustered in the federally-designated Riverside East Solar Energy Zone between Joshua Tree National Park and Blythe. Imperial County's DFAs would occupy the eastern shore of the Salton Sea.
Additional, smaller DFAs would be designated in the Searles Valley near Trona, near Randsburg in northern Kern County, at the southern end of the Owens Valley, north of Kramer Junction in San Bernardino County, and checkerboarded throughout the West Mojave and the area from Victorville to Johnson Valley.
Despite the scale of the potential development, the proposal marks a significant reduction in DFA acreage over previous versions of the plan, which had proposed two million acres in DFAs. Part of the reason for that is that the draft DRECP covered both public and privately owned land, but some drop in DFA acreage may well be due to criticism from some environmentalists that the draft DRECP covered too much ecologically valuable desert.
That draft version of the DRECP drew heated criticism due to the document's incredibly unwieldy size and impenetrable language, as well as what many felt was an overbroad approach to promoting renewable energy development on some of California's least-developed landscapes.
As a partial response to that criticism, the state and federal agencies responsible for drafting the DRECP went back to the drawing board, announcing in May that the plan would be released in two phases; the first covering public lands in the DRECP's 22 million-acre plan area and the second covering privately owned lands in that same area. That first, public-lands-only "Phase 1" is what was released Tuesday.
Even with its reduced scope, the DRECP's Phase 1 Final EIS is still a massive document -- the "preferred alternative" by itself is 300 pages -- and we'll be taking a closer look at it over the next few days to see what's in it.
In the meantime, reaction to the plan is rolling in from environmental groups, ranging from praise to caution. Much of that praise concerns the designation of conservation lands in the plan's Preferred Alternative, which has been tweaked to ensure more durable protection of those lands.
"The Bureau of Land Management has done an outstanding job of identifying key lands in the California desert to add to the National Conservation Lands," said Sam Goldman of the Conservation Lands Foundation. "Places such as the Silurian Valley and Amargosa River Basin in the California desert hold unique plants, animals, and vistas that make them well-deserving of their new status as permanent additions to the National Conservation Lands."
"With this plan, California continues to lead the way, demonstrating that conservation and renewable energy development can coexist in the 21st century," added Sally Miller of the Wilderness Society.
Others' praise was more cautious. "The final plan is an improvement from the draft but still falls short, and we urge further improvements to it," said Ileene Anderson with the Center for Biological Diversity. "We'll evaluate this plan to determine whether areas designated for development still include sensitive habitat for endangered species and the extent to which lands set aside for conservation are permanently and fully protected from a range of development threats."
In a press conference held by phone Tuesday, BLM Director Neil Kornze said a final decision on Phase 1 of the DRECP is likely to come early in 2016. In weeks to come, the plan will likely take heat for failing to include a distributed generation alternative, as well as for failing to account for the environmental impact of development on the private lands to be covered in Phase 2. We'll dig in and keep track.