Opposition Mounts to Solar Project On Mojave Preserve Boundary

View of the North Array site's currently undisturbed desert tortoise habitat from the Soda Mountains.
View of the North Array site's currently undisturbed desert tortoise habitat from the Soda Mountains. | Photo: Courtesy Basin and Range Watch

If discussion at a recent gathering of activists is any indication, a nearly 4,200-acre solar project for a valley adjoining National Park land in California's Mojave desert will encounter near-unanimous opposition from green groups.

The Soda Mountain Solar project, described earlier here at ReWire, would place 358 megawatts' worth of solar panels on 2,557 acres on either side of Interstate 15 between Baker and Barstow. The project would also include about 1,600 acres of support infrastructure, including roads, operations buildings, and an electrical substation. Depending on the plant's configuration, the project's East Array would be built as little as a quarter mile from the boundary of the Mojave National Preserve, a 1.6 million-acre National Park Service unit, near Zzyzx, a former resort turned desert research center.

That perceived encroachment on the Preserve, along with the project's potential effects on desert bighorn sheep and other wildlife, prompted strong statements of opposition at a Sierra Club-sponsored meeting of California and Nevada desert activists over the weekend in Shoshone, a nearby community outside Death Valley National Park.

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"This is just a bad project," David Lamfrom, California Desert Senior Program Manager for the National Parks Conservation Association, told the gathering on Saturday. "It's a dinosaur. There's no justification for building a solar power plant in this spot, where it will infringe on the Preserve and damage some of the best bighorn habitat in the Mojave."

Lamfrom's charges came during a presentation on the project at the February 15-16 meeting of the Sierra Club's California-Nevada Desert Committee, which draws desert activists from a wide range of organizations and locales four times a year to discuss topics ranging from wilderness to landfill proposals.

Lamfrom told the group that activists had thought they'd killed a previous version of the project, proposed by the New York-based firm Caithness Energy. Facing opposition based on proximity to the Preserve and the project's likely effects on desert wildlife, as well as problems with selling the project's power based on insufficient transmission through the area, Caithness quietly backed off on Soda Mountain Solar. "But then Caithness sold the project to Bechtel," said Lamfrom. "Bechtel has deep enough pockets to risk pushing it through, so it came back to life."

The project would also abut the Soda Mountains Wilderness Study Area (WSA), a haven for bighorn sheep. The corridor between Zzyzx in the Preserve and that WSA has long been one of the best places in the area for watching bighorn, who have so far escaped the outbreaks of pneumonia that have killed off sheep elsewhere in the Preserve. And according to comments submitted by Mojave National Preserve superintendent Stephanie Dubois during the project's scoping phase, a series of underpasses in the area serve as relatively safe and efficient wildlife crossings for the sheep. The project would block those crossings.

Other wildlife in the area include the federally Threatened desert tortoise, the Mojave fringe-toed lizard, burrowing owls, desert kit foxes, and golden eagles. Water use by the project for cleaning solar panels raises another concern: groundwater pumping will likely lower the local water table. If that pumping cut flows to springs in the Preserve, that might cause big problems for the federally Endangered Mohave tui chub, whose last wild population lives in a small spring downhill from the project site. (A few additional populations of the fish have been planted in other bodies of in the desert.)

Activists are gearing up to oppose the project with a unanimity not generally seen in opposition to other desert solar projects. Some green groups have been reluctant to stand in full-bore opposition to other desert solar proposals given the seriousness of the climate crisis the projects are intended to address. But the problems with the Bechtel project would seem to undo any benefit the solar energy might offer. Aside from the water and wildlife concerns, it may be that the project would be built to no actual end. No utility has agreed to buy a single megawatt of the 358 the project would generate at peak production.

Though two transmission lines cross the Soda Mountain Solar site, one -- the Eldorado-Kramer line operated by the California Independent System Operator (CaISO) -- is at capacity already, and would need expensive upgrades to carry more power. The other line, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power's Marketplace-Adelanto line, supplies power to municipal utilities in Southern California. None of those utilities have expressed public interest in buying Soda Mountain's power.

Given what they cast as the likely lack of compensating benefits from the project, groups ranging from NPCA to the national office of the Sierra Club have already gone on record as opposing the plant.

A public comment period on the project's Draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) draws to a close March 3. Many in attendance at the meeting in Shoshone said they were awaiting comments by the National Park Service on the Draft EIS, which are rumored to be blunt. With the close of comments on the Draft EIS, the Bureau of Land Management will begin drafting the project's Final EIS, which is likely to take several months.

One thing the BLM will need to address in that new document is a recent San Bernardino County ordinance that would seem to make the Soda Mountain project illegal as designed, by restricting solar development within two miles of National Parks in unincorporated sections of the county.

Some independent activists in attendance at Shoshone aren't waiting to go through the usual EIS process, and have crafted a Whitehouse.gov petition urging President Obama to make a decision up front denying Bechtel the right of way the project will need in order to go forward.

Barring that petition's success, the BLM's approach to the project in crafting the final EIS will likely ride on what the National Park Service's comments on the draft EIS say. The scoping comments mentioned above focused on impacts to bighorn as well as groundwater depletion and the site's top-notch desert tortoise habitat. We'll update you as NPS's comments on the Draft EIS become available.

For ongoing environmental coverage in March 2017 and afterward, please visit our show Earth Focus, or browse Redefine for historic material.
KCET's award-winning environment news project Redefine ran from July 2012 through February 2017.

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