Mojave Desert solar energy project angers conservationists

For most travelers on Interstate 15 between Barstow and Las Vegas, the rugged Soda Mountains of the Mojave Desert rise above a seemingly lifeless wasteland of hellish sand dunes, lava flows and vast plains.

But scientists say the burnt ground just a half-mile north of Mojave National Preserve’s aptly named Devil’s Playground is a deceptively delicate and vital ecosystem teeming with wildlife: turtles, foxes, badgers, bobcats, and bighorn sheep.

Now, proposals to build a high-speed electric rail linking Southern California to Las Vegas and revitalize a long-dead solar project in the area have led to a conflict with conservationists over how best to ensure bighorn sheep populations aren’t genetically isolated — or as end road kill.

Of particular concern was a recent announcement that the California Department of Fish and Wildlife is reviewing a revised version of the controversial Soda Mountain solar project, which includes applications for permits to “ingest” or fatally injure desert tortoises and alter desert washes during construction.

“We cannot allow this solar project,” said Chris Clarke of the nonprofit National Parks Conservation Assn.

“The value of this landscape and its habitat,” he said, “far outweighs the energy value that the proposed project would generate.”

A man in a straw cowboy hat is standing in the desert.

Chris Clark of the National Parks Conservation Assn. Walks along a trail in an area of ​​the Mojave Desert that environmentalists say is threatened by proposals to build a high-speed rail line between Southern California and Las Vegas and a controversial solar project.

(Louis Sahagun/Los Angeles Times)

For Mojave observers, the situation is a crucial test of State Fish and Wildlife’s ability to broker compromises between developers while planning a sustainable future for complex and fragile ecological networks in the desert.

Critics fear the solar project could jeopardize negotiations between federal railroad officials, Caltrans, state wildlife agencies and railroad developer Brightline West of Miami to include three wildlife crossings in its $8 billion project that would take the middle divider of Interstate 15.

Zglobal, the Folsom, Calif., renewable energy company that supports the Soda Mountain solar project, and Brightline could not be reached for comment.

But Christina Aiello, a biologist at Oregon State University and an expert on bighorn sheep along Interstate 15, said, “It’s a bit of a shock that this zombie solar project has risen from the dead.”

At worst, it could result in bighorn sheep populations avoiding the region, making wildlife crossing a huge waste of money, she said.

“It would also be a slap in the face to all those who have poured work, money and years of their lives into the Bighorns’ local salvage efforts,” Aiello said.

State Wildlife Authorities will assess the project’s environmental impact under the California Environmental Quality Act.

“Let’s all take a deep breath,” said Chuck Bonham, director of the state fish and wildlife agency. “The desert is an invaluable landscape and any proposed solar project must go through a public process.

“If we need to make changes to avoid conflict, we will. But there will be a way that everyone can accept and embrace connectivity for the bighorn populations – it just makes sense.”

Cars and big trucks race along a desert road.

Traffic on Interstate 15 drives past the North Soda Mountains, home to desert bighorn sheep.

(Gary Coronado/Los Angeles Times)

Desert bighorns once thrived in rugged mountain ranges in the Mojave Desert, where they formed a “metapopulation” of groups linked by ancient trails. Today their survival is threatened by disease, drought, highways and renewable energy.

Developing solar power plants in the desert has been one of the federal government’s top priorities since the former Obama administration announced plans to reduce the nation’s dependence on fossil fuels and curb global warming.

Prospective solar energy developers have long viewed the site, approximately seven miles south of Baker Township, as a high-value resource.

That’s because of its proximity to existing infrastructure, including Interstate 15, two transmission lines, a distribution line, cell towers, a fiber optic line, a fuel pipeline, and a phone line.

However, the city of Los Angeles scrapped plans to purchase power from the 3-square-mile project in 2015 after a review found that other proposed renewable energy projects would charge the city less for electricity and faced fewer challenges in delivering the power would have LA

A year later, the project was rejected by the San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors because of the potential impact of its wells on underground aquifers, dealing a major blow to one of the most controversial renewable energy projects in the state.

However, the revised proposal aims to remove this obstacle by removing groundwater wells from its plans.

And something else about the project appears to have changed: Los Angeles officials say they would be interested in receiving purchasing power proposals for the 300-megawatt project “as part of the competitive procurement process.”

The project would operate year-round and deliver solar-generated electricity to the regional power grid through a connection with the existing 500-kilovolt transmission line, which is cooperating with the Los Angeles Department of Water and Energy, officials said.

However, Clarke suggests that there are desert scenes between Interstate 15 and Devil’s Playground that are unlikely to appear in a renewable energy company’s presentation to potential investors.

Stepping down an arroyo lined with creosote brushes, smoke trees and myriad unseen animal dens and washing facilities, Clarke said, “We favor renewable energy, but not here.”

“This country is a crossroads of trails and volcanic eruptions that help sustain gene flow in native wildlife,” he said. “To the south is the Mojave National Preserve, which covers 2,400 square miles.”

He turned in a circle on his heels, then pointed north and said, “Over there, beyond Interstate 15, there are protected habitats that stretch 100 miles to the borders of Death Valley National Park.

“The idea of ​​sacrificing this beating heart of the Mojave for more solar panels doesn’t make sense.” Mojave Desert solar energy project angers conservationists

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