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Opposition to Inyo Solar Plan Isn't Going Away

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The Amargosa River may be affected by large-scale solar development | Photo: Ron's Log/Flickr/Creative Commons License

Though Inyo County officials made significant cuts last year to the amount of land the county would make available to big solar development, some activists are still worried that the plan unfairly targets remote parts of the county that they say should be left in a wild state.

In May 2014, faced with opposition to a proposed amendment to its General Plan that would have established huge Solar Energy Development Areas, or SEDAs, across the county, Inyo County officials dropped about 90 square miles of those Development Areas in the Owens Valley.

Reducing the size of Development Areas in the county's most populated valley won planners praise. But SEDAs remain in both the Owens Valley the county's far less-populated eastern half, and conservation groups warn that utility-scale solar in those areas could harm threatened species and one of the nation's most unusual Wild and Scenic Rivers.

Public comment on the General Plan Amendment's Draft Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement ends on January 14. The acreage covered by proposed solar development areas in that draft environmental assessment is still pretty extensive. Solar Energy Development Areas remaining in the Owens Valley region include a large swath surrounding Owens Lake, as well as a narrower corridor along Route 395 south of the lake, and smaller patches near Benton, Trona, and Inyokern. In the Death Valley area, conservationists are especially concerned over a large SEDA proposed for the Charleston View area near Pahrump, Nevada, as well as a smaller one in the Chicago Valley east of Shoshone.

Opponents of the Death Valley SEDAs point out that even water-efficient photovoltaic solar facilities need water to operate, and that water would have to come from somewhere. East of Death Valley, "somewhere" generally means aquifers that feed into the Wild and Scenic Amargosa River. Solar plants using groundwater in the area would add to the pressure on the area's unique assemblage of riparian and other wetland species, including several species of desert pupfish.

What's more, claim local conservationists, development in the Death Valley SEDAs would undermine the only viable industry eastern Inyo County possesses: tourism based on the east county's relatively unspoiled vistas.In comments on the county's General Plan Amendment made last June by Jordan Kelley, the former executive director of the Amargosa Conservancy, forefronted water and visual resources in the non-profit group's concerns over the Chicago Valley and Charleston View SEDAs:

While we support renewable energy development, we are deeply concerned that siting utility scale solar plants in Chicago Valley and Charleston View would entail pumping significant quantities of groundwater from aquifers that support the Amargosa Wild and Scenic River and that provide water for our small human communities. Industrial scale solar plants would also adversely affect scenic and historic values that support tourism in the area, the only enterprise that this economically depressed region can rely on.

The Conservancy notes that recent hydrological studies of the Amargosa Basin indicate that groundwater in Ash Meadows and the Pahrump Valley very likely flows into the Amargosa River's watershed by way of Chicago Valley and Charleston View. That means that pumping groundwater in those SEDAs for use to wash solar panels may well have a detrimental impact on the protected river, which provides an important corridor of habitat all the way to its outflow on the Death Valley playa.

The Conservancy's working to solicit even more public comment on the county's general plan through an online petition and outreach in social media. Once that public comment is collected, it will at least in theory be addressed in a final Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement, which we will be examining closely when it's available, likely in late 2015.

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