Part of the Soda Mountain Solar Project site (Courtesy © Michael Gordon)
by Chris Clarke
The National Park Service isn't happy about a proposal to build a large solar facility on almost 4,200 acres next door to the Mojave National Preserve. The agency is citing the project's threats to wildlife, rare plants, groundwater, air quality, and wilderness characteristics of the 1.6 million acre unit.
The Soda Mountain Solar Project, which would be built by Bechtel on either side of Interstate 15 along the northwest edge of the Preserve, would pose serious threats to bighorn sheep, desert tortoises, migratory birds, and one of the rarest fish in the world, according to a comment letter on the project's Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) filed by Preserve Superintendent Stephanie Dubois.
The project would generate a maximum of 350 megawatts of power by putting solar panels on more than half the project's total footprint: about 2,200 acres. But environmental advocates are saying that the project's damage to the Preserve isn't worth the energy the plant would generate -- especially considering no one seems to be interested in buying the power.
Due in part to the project's remoteness and lack of transmission capacity despite two lines running near the site, Bechtel has been unable to secure an agreement with any utility to buy power from the Soda Mountain project. "We believe this is the poster child for ill-sited projects in the California desert," said National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA) representative Seth Shteir in an interview with Greenwire's Scott Streater. "We think this project has so many negative impacts to the natural resources in the Mojave National Preserve and adjacent wilderness study areas that it sort of defies common sense to site the project there."
Among the issues identified in the National Park Service comment letter are blocking a future migration corridor for the Preserve's bighorn sheep into the North Soda Mountains. Pointing out that bighorn sheep tend to avoid any kind of human-built infrastructure even in the absence of humans themselves, NPS states that "[i]f the project moves forward, bighorn sheep migration between the north and south areas of the project will likely be permanently impeded."
That's a problem, as the bighorn herd south of the project site, in the hills near the Desert Studies Center at Zzyzx, are one of a handful not yet exposed to the pneumonia currently ravaging sheep populations elsewhere in the Preserve. Sealing off the sheep's possible northern migration corridor could seal their fate if the pneumonia epidemic approaches from the south.
NPS also expressed concern about the project's effect on the endangered Mohave tui chub, whose sole native, non-transplanted population can be found in MC Spring a few miles downhill from the project. There are more of the chub in the artificial pond Lake Tuendae at Zzyzx. Bechtel intends to pump up to 60 acre-feet of groundwater from the project site each year to use for washing solar panels: if that affects the flow of groundwater that supplies MC Spring and Lake Tuendae, that's a problem for the fish.
The BLM argues in the project's DEIS that since it's not known what effect pumping would have on local groundwater, that there won't be a problem. NPS disagrees. "Without conclusive knowledge about the hydrology of the Soda Mountain Valley aquifer," says Dubois in the Park Service's comments, "the Project risks the consequence of irreversible damage to the habitat and the viability of this highly endangered species."
NPS also criticizes the project's likely impact on air quality from fugitive dust emissions, dark night skies, and risk of all those solar panels to the flocks of migrating birds regularly drawn to the area's permanent and ephemeral wetlands.
The Park Service ends its comments by asking for a meeting with BLM staff to discuss the project further. The group Basin and Range Watch reports partway down this page that the BLM's maps of the Soda Mountains project used in public meetings last month didn't show the boundaries of the Mojave National Preserve, so it's probably a good thing that NPS reminded BLM that they, and the Preserve, exist.