The National Park Service has lodged strongly worded objections to a proposed 6.5-square-mile solar development about a half-mile from the Mojave National Preserve, saying the project would harm wildlife and suggesting that it be built elsewhere.
Preserve Superintendent Stephanie Dubois submitted an eight-page letter to the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, which oversees the public land where the Soda Mountain solar project is planned and which is handling the environmental analysis of the development.
A subsidiary of the Bechtel Corp., one of the world’s largest construction companies, wants to put solar panels on both sides of Interstate 15 about six miles south of Baker and just outside the northwest corner of the national preserve, where the bright white Soda Lake is a striking landmark. The lake, mostly dry, is bordered by springs, seeps and ponds, providing a small oasis for wildlife.
Dubois’ letter says the BLM failed to adequately examine the project’s potential to harm groundwater, threatened and endangered species, and scenic views, among other issues. The project would be detrimental to the desert tortoise, bighorn sheep and protected birds in the area and could reduce water supplies that support one of the few populations of an endangered fish, she wrote.
“We urge the BLM to reconsider the potential for this project to be sited on other BLM lands, private lands, or other degraded lands where renewable energy projects would present fewer adverse impacts to natural and cultural resources,” Dubois wrote in her March 3 letter to the BLM.
BLM spokeswoman Martha Maciel said Dubois’ letter is just one of many written comments the agency received as part of the process to evaluate Bechtel’s requests for a right-of-way permit the company needs in order to build on public land.
“We will consider all the comments and adjust our analysis where appropriate,” said Maciel, reached by phone at her office in Sacramento.
Dubois could not be reached for comment.
‘LINE IN THE SAND’
David Lamfrom, California desert program manager for the National Parks Conservation Association, said it is unusual for a federal agency under the Department of Interior to be so critical of a sister agency. He expects Dubois’ letter to bolster the arguments of environmental groups that oppose the project.
“There is no question that this project is harmful and poorly sited,” said Lamfrom, who added that the Obama administration has approved all six commercial solar projects in the California desert that underwent BLM environmental reviews, despite repeated concerns by environmentalists about lost wildlife habitat and other natural resources.
“Soda Mountain is unequivocally a line in the sand,” he said.
The project is about 100 miles from the solar zone that the Department of Interior established along Interstate 10 in 2012 to avoid environmental conflicts and also defies ongoing state planning efforts to find appropriate locations for such projects, he said.
Bechtel spokeswoman Michelle Michael said she had not read Dubois’ letter. She referred a reporter to website where the company responds to several environmental questions raised since Bechtel took over the project in 2012.
The website says the Soda Mountains site was chosen over other locations because it has “the lowest environmental impacts.” It also says the company reduced the project’s size from 14.9 to 6.5 square miles to avoid washes and reduce the effects on wildlife. The solar panels would cover 3.3 square miles.
Large fields of panels would be fenced, with space in between for bighorn sheep and other wildlife to move across the project site.
Dubois’ letter said the sheep that live in Soda Mountains aren’t likely to migrate through the solar site, however, because the animals avoid people and man-made structures.
She offered to meet with the BLM to help design an alternative review “that will put natural resources first and solar development second. Such an alternative also would provide the project with a full range of reasonable and realistic analyses options, a range we consider to be lacking in the current document.”
Also at issue is the water the solar development would require for construction, panel cleaning and other uses. Bechtel wants to pump 192 acre-feet a year of groundwater during the three years of construction and then 46 acre-feet a year for the estimated 30 years of operations. An acre-foot is 325,851 gallons.
The BLM analysis predicts that pumping won’t affect the groundwater that feeds springs along Zzyzx Road in the Mojave National Preserve or MC Spring, which feeds an oasis-like pond that’s home to an endangered fish, the Mohave tui chub. Bighorn sheep and other wildlife use the springs.
Park Service officials say the water calculations aren’t based on any well data and that not enough information is available to determine whether springs in the preserve would be affected by pumping at the solar site.
The draft analysis calls for hauling in water for the solar project if the spring the fish depend on starts to dry up. But park officials say that by the time a problem is detected, the damage to the spring could be irreversible.
The Park Service also contends the Soda Mountain project would compromise some of the nation’s most striking, unimpeded views of desert landscapes.
Dubois’ letter says the development would conflict with the California Desert Protection Act of 1994, which created the Mojave National Preserve. The law, sponsored by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., calls for preserving “unrivaled scenic, geological and wildlife values” associated with the parks and wilderness areas the law created.
Bechtel’s website says the project would have a minimal effect on views. Mountains shield much of the project, and views of the solar fields from the Mojave National Preserve would be limited, according to the website. Motorists on Interstate 15 would see the site for only four to five minutes as they drive by.
Contact David Danelski at 951-368-9471 or email@example.com
SODA MOUNTAIN SOLAR
Location: Six miles southwest of Baker, next to the Soda Lake area of the Mojave National Preserve
Technology: Photovoltaic panels
Capacity: 358 megawatts, enough for 170,000 homes
Employment: 290 peak construction jobs; 40 permanent positions
Developer: Soda Mountain Solar LCC, a subsidiary of Bechtel Corp.
Size: 6.5 square miles of public land
Status: The U.S. Bureau of Land Management is reviewing comments that will be incorporated into a final environmental report. The project still needs final approval and a right-of-way grant from the federal government.
Sources: Bechtel, U.S. Bureau of Land Management