Opposition Swells to Solar Plant Next to Mojave Preserve

Looking toward the Mojave National Preserve from the site of Soda Mountain Solar | Photo: Michael Gordon

A proposed solar power plant that some opponents are calling "the worst renewable energy project currently under consideration" in California just found itself some significant opposition, as a public committee charged with advising the Bureau of Land Management on desert issues agreed to oppose the project.

In a nearly unanimous vote with just one member abstaining, the BLM's Desert District Advisory Committee agreed at its February 28 meeting to recommend that the BLM say no to the proposed 350-megawatt Soda Mountain Solar project, which would occupy almost 4,200 acres of land adjacent to the Mojave National Preserve near Baker.

"No reconfiguration of this project would remove its harmful effects," said Advisory Committee member Seth Shteir at the meeting. "And we plan to draft a letter with that statement in it."

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The lone abstention on the Advisory Council vote came from Council member Leslie Barrett, who represents the renewable energy industry on the Council.

The Advisory Council's letter to State BLM Director Jim Kenna comes in a week when activists tracking the project have learned that the Interior Department is ready to make the project's final Environmental Impact Statement publicly available. Once that happens, a decision on the project could come in as little as 30 days.

As currently configured, Soda Mountain Solar, owned by the engineering firm Bechtel, would occupy land on both sides of Interstate 15 a few miles southwest of the San Bernardino County community of Baker. So far no utility has stepped forward to agree to buy the power the project would produce.

Opponents of Soda Mountain Solar point out that the project would fragment important spring foraging habitat and migration corridors for desert bighorn sheep, as well as reducing habitat for desert kit foxes, desert tortoises, and burrowing owls.

The project has also come under fire for potentially threatening one of the last remaining populations of the federally Endangered Mojave tui chub, which lives downhill from the project site in Soda Springs near Zzyzx. A recent hydrological study by the U.S. Geological Survey, however, suggested groundwater pumping at the project site may not have much of an effect on Soda Springs.

Regardless of the arguably good news about the tui chub, opponents charge that the project's location as well as its effect on local wildlife, make Soda Mountain Solar the wrong project in the wrong place, and are calling on the Interior Department to drop the project.

"The proposed Soda Mountain solar project site is clearly a bad spot especially due to the proximity to Mojave National Preserve, the area's important bighorn sheep corridor and desert tortoise habitat," said Dennis Schramm, the retired Superintendent of the Mojave National Preserve. "Interior should not be taking actions now which would prevent future restoration of this very important wildlife corridor."

"The Soda Mountain solar proposal is the worst renewable energy project currently under consideration by Bureau of Land Management and the Department of Interior," said G. Sidney Silliman, Professor Emeritus at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona. "It would be a travesty if the Interior Department ignores its duty to protect our National Park System and sides with Bechtel, a billion-dollar corporation, versus the hundreds of thousands of people who visit Mojave National Preserve each year to view wildflowers and wildlife, camp, as well as hunt and explore the back country."

Bighorn sheep in the Mojave National Preserve could be adversely affected by Soda Mountain Solar, say opponents | Photo: Le Hayes

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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