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Work on Solar Project Halted to Protect Lizard

Flat-tailed horned lizard | Photo: Johnida Dockens/Flickr/Creative Commons License

Work has halted on a solar power facility in Imperial County due to the possibility that a rare lizard on site may be listed as an endangered species by the state.

Construction halted Wednesday at the Tenaska Imperial Solar Energy Center West, being built by Tempe, Arizona-based First Solar, in the wake of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife's accepting a petition to list the flat-tailed horned lizard as Endangered under the California Endangered Species Act.

Any species being considered for listing under CalESA automatically gets the full protection of the law until its fate is determined, and that means contractors at the Tenaska site must now proceed as though the lizard is officially listed.

Construction will remain halted until Tenaska acquires permits from the Department of Fish and Wildlife. The company says it expects that will happen next week.

Tenaska Imperial Solar Energy Center West, which would generate up to 150 megawatts of power, began construction in December 2014 on 1,100 acres of abandoned farmland west of El Centro. That's right in the heart of flat-tailed horned lizard habitat, and the lizards don't make it easy for construction workers to avoid killing them. Three inches long and well-camouflaged against the desert soil, the lizards' primary means of defense against predators is to freeze in place. That's not a particularly helpful strategy when the "predator" threatening you is actually a piece of earthmoving equipment.

The California Department of Fish and Wildlife has a year to decide whether to list the flat-tailed, which has lost most of its potential habitat in California's low desert to suburban and agricultural development. Imperial County's burgeoning solar industry has been cited as a serious potential threat to the county's remaining flat-tails.

Workers hired to build the Tenaska project are still collecting paychecks while they've been idled, according to a report in the Imperial Valley Press. One contractor working on the site told IV Press reporter Alejandro Davila Fragoso that his company is losing $146,000 per week due to the delay.

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