March 19, 2014

Park service says project would harm Mojave preserve

Soda Lake in the Mojave National Preserve is the point where the Mojave River, which flows from the San Bernardino Mountains, reaches its end. A commercial solar project planned within a mile of the lake bed has triggered worries about water depletion in spring-fed ponds and the fate of an endangered fish, among other concerns. (DAVID DANELSKI)

By David Danelski
Riverside Press-Enterprise

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.