Tuesday, August 23, 2016

County Rejects Environmental Certification of Soda Mountain Solar

The San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors voted 3-2 to reject the environmental analysis of the Soda Mountain Solar project, placing a significant hurdle in the path of a project that would have threatened important wildlife habitat next to the Mojave National Preserve.  Supervisors Lovingood, Gonzales, and Rutherford expressed concern during a lengthy meeting today that the environmental analysis was inadequate and did not address the California Department of Fish and Wildlife's input regarding impacts on desert bighorn sheep.  During closing comments, Supervisor Lovingood pointed out that projects of this scale would be better located on already-disturbed lands in the County, and mentioned specific sites as examples.

Desert bighorn sheep perched on the slopes of Soda Mountain in the Mojave National Preserve.  The Soda Mountain Solar project would have been built nearby, threatening opportunities to restore bighorn sheep habitat connectivity across Interstate-15 and jeopardizing groundwater that may feed critical natural springs.
Regenerate Power,  the company that now owns the Soda Mountain Solar proposal after corporate behemoth Bechtel pulled out of the project, proposed to build the project along Interstate-15 and next to the Mojave National Preserve.  However, the location chosen for the project overlaps with an area being studied by biologists as an opportunity to restore connectivity for desert bighorn sheep.  The Interstate has acted as a genetic barrier to the bighorn sheep since it was constructed, and has begun to isolate sheep populations to the north and south.  Biologists are looking at ways that a wildlife overpass, artificial water sources, and modified culverts under the highway could re-connect sheep populations across the highway.  But the solar project could threaten these opportunities.

During the Supervisor meeting today, the public also expressed concern that the project's groundwater use would impact wildlife.  The Soda Mountain Solar project would require as much as 156.4 million gallons of groundwater during the 30 month construction period.  Once built, the project would require as much as 10.7 million gallons of water each year for panel washing and dust suppression during regular operation and maintenance, according to the final environmental impact statement.  This water use may jeopardize groundwater that also supplies natural springs used by a multitude of desert wildlife, including a rare desert fish and bighorn sheep.

The vote was an impressive reflection of persistent public demand for a smarter, more sustainable deployment of renewable energy.  The vote was also a rejection of the fast-track environmental review process that often accepts unnecessary risks to wildlife and wildlands, catering to industry while ignoring more efficient alternatives, such as solar on already-disturbed lands, on rooftops, and over parking lots.

Nearly 3 square miles of this intact desert habitat may now be spared after the San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors rejected the environmental certification of the Soda Mountain Solar project.  Photo by Michael E. Gordon.

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Road to Recovery for Declining Tortoise Population Increasingly Narrow

The desert tortoise population continues to experience a significant decline, despite 26 years of recovery efforts under the Endangered Species Act.  Since 2004 - years into the recovery effort - the overall population has declined by nearly 32%, and the decline is even steeper in certain portions of the tortoise's range.

This startling trend is not evident in the Department of Interior's public posture, which is optimistic on the ability of landscape-level planning to protect habitat linkages and project-level mitigation to offset local population losses.  A closer examination of land management and mitigation practices calls into question Interior's resolve to arrest the decline of the desert tortoise as its habitat becomes increasingly fragmented.

Tortoise Population Spirals Downward
When the desert tortoise was listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act in 1990, initial research and anecdotal evidence suggested human impacts were chiefly responsible for driving down the tortoise population by as much as 90% in the preceding hundred years (Berry, Kristin; Status of the Desert Tortoise in the United States).  The accuracy of the estimate from that 1984 study has been questioned by some, but none doubted that the tortoise had indeed experienced a significant population decline by the early 1980s.

Advanced research looking at the status of the desert tortoise since just 2004, however, has revealed a continued decline despite the efforts of many conservation groups and agencies to stabilize its population. Evaluation of the tortoise's status across its range - which spans parts of California, Nevada, Arizona and Utah - is broken down into five "recovery units."  Only one of five recovery units experienced a population increase. The overall population decline between 2004 and 2014 is estimated at 32%, with localized declines of as much as 67%.
A chart that will be further explained below shows downward population trends. We have been attempting to stabilize and recover the desert tortoise population for 26 years.  In the past ten years alone the species has continued a significant population decline throughout much of its range, with the exception of the northeastern Mojave.  Although, now, the northeastern Mojave faces significant development pressures.
The steepest declined occured in the Eastern Mojave Recovery Unit, where Interior has permitted four utility-scale solar projects in the narrow portion of a key habitat linkage.  Between 2004 and 2014, the tortoise population here dropped by 67%, according to the Fish and Wildlife Service report.  That is the estimated decline during just a portion of the 26 years that the desert tortoise has been listed as Federally protected, and millions of dollars spent on its recovery. Other habitat linkages in the Amargosa and Pahrump Valleys iare now threatened by other proposed energy projects.

In the Western Mojave Recovery Unit, the tortoise population as declined by as much as 51% since 2004.  The is where a checkerboard of Federal and private land poses a challenge to unified conservation efforts, and urban sprawl and transportation projects chip away at habitat connectivity. Urban sprawl around the Victor and Lucerne Valleys, the expansion of training areas for the Twentynine Palms Marine Corps base, and the Johnson Valley Off-Highway Vehicle Area all threaten to significantly fragment habitat and isolate tortoise populations over time.

In the Colorado Desert Recovery Unit, the tortoise has experienced a 36% decline since 2004.  The protection of some of its habitat in the newly designated Mojave Trails National Monument may help maintain some linkages that had previously been targeted by energy development.   The Upper Virgin River Recovery Unit has seen a 27% decline; tortoise habitat around Saint George is in the crosshairs of sprawl and road development.  Only the Northeastern Recovery Unit between Las Vegas and Utah has seen a significant population gain - a 270% increase - but these gains may be in peril as a key linkage may be affected by the Dry Lake Solar Energy Zone and energy projects being permitted in the area.

Keeping Habitat Linkages: Incredibly Important, Increasingly Difficult
Other studies of the tortoise's status also caution that it is difficult to extrapolate rangewide health from the current numbers because we should think of the tortoise not as a species that fills the desert uniformly, but slowly occupies and disappears from patches of the desert over time (although the apparent decline throughout the majority of its range is what is most troubling). But the tortoise's ability to maintain this population dance - natural population variation across its entire range - requires habitat connectivity.  Once connectivity to a certain portion of its range is lost, that local population may die off and not be re-populated later because tortoises can no longer naturally reach that patch of habitat.  The more we fragment the tortoise's range, the more difficult it will be for the species to maintain healthy populations without significant human intervention.

A key study published in 2013 by Roy Averill-Murray and other experts identifying remaining habitat linkages also calls out proposed energy development that could jeopardize them.  Some of these linkages are the best remaining alternative because other natural linkages have been foreclosed by previous development, such as off-highway vehicle recreation areas, military training and urban sprawl.

A map included in a study published by Herpetological Conservation and Biology shows the "least cost" tortoise habitat corridors in black, with pending renewable energy development in red and yellow. Some corridors are not

The likelihood of protecting these linkages seem slim, especially because the Department of Interior seems pressured to push the limits of desert tortoise survival, allowing development to overtake or threaten tortoise habitat linkages.  Most recently we saw Interior attempting to identify the minimum width necessary for habitat linkages to remain viable - hardly a conservative approach toward protecting the long-term viability of this species in decline.  The Averill-Murray study aptly sums up why this approach is problematic:
"Limited guidance is available for determining precise linkage widths, but minimum widths for corridor dwellers such as the Mojave Desert Tortoise should be substantially larger than a home range diameter (Beier et al. 2008). Inevitably, however, questions will be asked about what is the minimum width for a particular desert tortoise linkage, what is the relevant home range size from which to estimate that minimum width, and what are the minimum sampling considerations in estimating home ranges (cf. Harless et al. 2010). We agree with Beier et al. (2008) that this is analogous to asking an engineer, “what are the fewest number of rivets that might keep this wing on the airplane?” A more appropriate question for conservation is “what is the narrowest width that is not likely to be regretted after the adjacent area is converted to human use?”" -Conserving Population Linkages for the Mojave Desert Tortoise (Gopherus Agassizii), 2013
The Department of Interior did not get the memo.  It proudly announced in 2014 that it approved permits for First Solar to construct the the Silver State South and Stateline Solar projects in the eastern Mojave Desert, despite concerns that the projects would significantly narrow a key tortoise linkage by destroying nearly six and a half square miles of intact habitat.  Interior ignored initial advice from the Fish and Wildlife Service and pressured biologists to justify the narrowest corridor possible.  At the end of the day, First Solar was required to pitch in some money to protect desert tortoise habitat elsewhere, and monitor the status of tortoises that it displaced for the sake of the project.  Long-term, however, the viability of this linkage made narrower by the solar projects is now in question.

The Silver State South and North Solar project pictured above significantly narrowed a key habitat linkage in the Ivanpah Valley.  Two other solar projects nearby further impacted the Ivanpah Valley's tortoise population.

Elsewhere, the BLM's draft Las Vegas Resource Management Plan proposed three new solar energy zones within or on the edges of key tortoise linkages in southern Nevada.  Other wildlands in the Pahrump Valley considered "priority 2" tortoise habitat under the Solar Programmatic EIS are being targeted by utility-scale solar developers and new transmission lines.

Considering the importance of threatened habitat linkages - those we have identified and those that we have not - it seems possible that the tortoise could slowly become extinct from portions of its range that are already highly fragmented, unless humans artificially intervene to stabilize populations and ensure genetic exchange. This seems to be far from the point of the Endangered Species Act - instead of recovering a species we are essentially managing its decline.  To sculpt down and chop up tortoise habitat, and then keep the remaining populations on life support.

Local Mitigation a Short-Term Bandage on a Gaping Wound
Tortoise translocation has seen a lot of press over the past few years.  Reporters tagged along with BrightSource Energy staff as they relocated tortoises displaced by the Ivanpah Solar project, and newspapers highlighted the delayed plans by the US Marine Corps to relocate tortoises from a newly-designated training area in the eastern Johnson Valley.   But despite years and multiple translocation efforts, Interior's management of tortoise translocation seems haphazard, guided by a patchwork of research with uneven implementation and results.

New research helps provide some parameters to guide translocation efforts to reduce tortoise deaths in the months and years following relocation.  A recent study suggest that tortoises relocated to habitat nearby fare better than those relocated long distances, specifically looking at the fate of some tortoises relocated from the Ivanpah Solar project.   When tortoises are removed from their home range, they become more active and spend more time looking for burrows or forage, according to the study.  The study says that eventually they'll settle into a new routine and probably wont be as vulnerable.
Not all tortoises are as lucky as this juvenile (center of photo, just above GPS device placed for reference), spotted coincidentally after bulldozers already began destroying its habitat to make way for the Stateline Solar project in the Ivanpah Valley.  Most juvenile tortoises probably are not spotted during clearance surveys, and are crushed during construction.
Previous research suggests drought at the time of relocation worsen's a tortoise's survival chances, making them more vulnerable to natural predators.   Despite research suggesting some relocation efforts can be implemented successfully, an examination of recent translocations suggests results are uneven, and translocation efforts across Interior seem disjointed.  That said, just getting a hold of translocation results can be difficult; some offices are happy to dig up data while others require FOIA requests.

For example, the Department of Interior in June of 2012 announced that it approved the Moapa Solar project on the tribal trust land of the Moapa Band of Paiute Indians.  Since then, bulldozers have cleared over three square miles of intact desert habitat to make way for photovoltaic solar panels - the same technology that companies can also install on rooftops or as shade structures over existing parking lots.  Little public scrutiny was accorded to the environmental review of the Moapa Solar project, shepherded by Interior's Bureau of Indian Affiars.   The project's environemntal impact statement and biological opinion required that tortoises found on the project site be relocated to nearby habitat and for the data to be reported to the Department of Interior.

Initial efforts to obtain the information on the status of tortoises displaced by the Moapa Solar project were rejected, and Interior indicated that the information belonged to the solar developer.  This same type of data is routinely made available for other projects approved by the Department of Interior.  Eventually the information was released by the company and it was not good news.  According to information submitted by First Solar to the Fish and Wildlife Service, at least 22 desert tortoises of a total of 66 translocated tortoises had died as of 2015 after being displaced by the massive project.  Another nine could not be found.  That's a significant failure rate, even though the translocation should have benefitted from knowledge gained during other translocations.

Another problem with these numbers is that they do not provide the full picture of impacts on the tortoises.  Approximately 90 additional tortoises were passively excluded because biologists determined that at least a portion of their territory existed outside the project boundary.  But those tortoises are still losing some of their habitat and are likely exposed to additional stresses as a result of the project.  The data made available by First Solar does not discuss the fate of these excluded tortoises.

Who Is Tracking All of the Tortoises?
Not all projects result in a mortality rate as bad as the Moapa Solar project.  But it's not clear that the Fish and Wildlife Service is enforcing standards in how translocations are monitored and evaluated.  In response to correspondence with multiple offices across Interior, I have found that data on translocation efforts can come from private contractors, the Bureau of Land Management Field Offices, Bureau of Indian Affairs, or the Fish and Wildlife Service.   The data for each project almost always is provided in a different format.   There is a central website for the Fish and Wildlife Service's Desert Tortoise Recovery Office, but I was never pointed to a central office that might track translocation efforts across Interior's many jurisdictions.

For the Ivanpah Solar project translocation, the Fish and Wildlife Service is supposed to compare results to a control population of tortoises to determine if the translocated tortoises are susceptible to a higher degree of mortality than those elsewehere in the same area.  When I asked Fish and Wildlife Service if the current results revealed a statistically significant different, they had not yet done the analysis.  But at least they had the data.  The Moapa Solar project translocation monitoring data made available by First Solar did not include information on a control group with which it could be compared.  So there is no way for the public to know which translocation efforts are succeeding or failing, or by how much.

Another difference I found was that Fish and Wildlife Service established a "take threshold" for translocated tortoises -  a maximum allowable number of tortoises that might perish after relocation - for the purpose of some energy projects in the Ivanpah Valley.  If mortality of translocated animals exceeded the threshold, they would have to re-initiate consultation with the Fish and Wildlife Service to determine if anything different needed to be done to ensure that translocation was more successful.  Based on correspondence with Interior, it does not sound like a take threshhold was established for the animals translocated to make way for the Moapa Solar project.  It's not clear why Interior would establish a threshhold for some projects but not others.
A tortoise prepares to cross a two-lane road in the Mojave Desert.  A form a habitat fragmentation, but not as serious as some of the wider highways, urban sprawl, and massive energy projects.
Most of the public's attention may be focused on occassional news stories about specific projects or translocation efforts, a public relations battle that Interior fights with sometimes upbeat reviews of its own mitigation and translocation efforts. But the public's - and most likely Interior's - grasp of translocation effectiveness seems elusive.

Regardless of the effectiveness of translocation on a project-specific level, the overall tortoise population remains in trouble.  It seems that land managers are actively and passively making decisions that sculpt down the tortoise's range, ignoring a drumbeat of research on the importance of key habitat linkages and accepting the risk that the tortoise may struggle to inhabit or go extinct from portions of its range over the long-term.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Yellow Pine Project Threatens Wildlands in Nevada

NextEra Energy is proposing to build a 250 megawatt solar project in Nevada's Pahrump Valley that would destroy 4.6 square miles of intact desert habitat on public land.  The project would further push the distance that residents of the Las Vegas area will travel to experience desert wildlands not scarred by industrial-scale energy projects.  The Ivanpah, El Dorado, and Moapa areas to the south and north of Las Vegas have lost approximately 21 square miles of desert habitat to industrial-scale solar development in the past few years.

Approximate area under consideration by NextEra for the Yellow Pine Solar project in the Pahrump Valley.  The total application area covers over 9,000 acres, and the final project would destroy approximately 3,000 acres of the parcel.

Some of the lands being considered for the project host desert tortoises already relocated once from a Clark County sanctuary, meaning the animals that survived the initial translocation will again be jeopardized, according to Basin &Range Watch.  Even before the tortoise translocation, the lands had been identified during Fish and Wildlife Service as a priority desert tortoise connectivity area.

The Yellow Pine Solar project will also require substantial water for construction and maintenance in a groundwater basin that is already severely over drafted.  Although the project does not currently have a power purchase agreement, Nevada's utility company has favored destructive centralized power plant and has funded attacks on rooftop solar.  This is despite the fact that analysis has soundly concluded that rooftop solar provides a net benefit to the grid.

Monday, May 9, 2016

Eagle Mountain: Confronting the Industrial Juggernauts

Please Take Action:  Send an e-mail by May 27, 2016 to " JOTR_Study@NPS.gov " asking the National Park Service to restore the maximum allowable acreage of the Eagle Mountain area to Joshua Tree National Park.

The National Park Service is considering restoring lands removed from what was then Joshua Tree National Monument in the 1950s (it did not become a National Park until 1994), but that restoration may not stop one more giant industrial project from moving forward in the Eagle Mountain area.   The land in question was originally removed from the Monument by Congress to allow for the expansion of the Eagle Mountain Mine, but that mine is no longer in operation.  Although the massive open pit remains, surrounding desert wildlands still provide important habitat for wildlife, including an important desert bighorn sheep corridor.  The Park Service is accepting public comments until May 27, 2016.

Mining, Sanitation, and now Energy Industries Stake Claims on Joshua Tree's Eagle Mountain

Eagle Mountain was within the original Joshua Tree National Monument in 1936, but it was removed in 1950 to cater to the mining and steel industries.  The National Park Service's consideration of restoring most of the lands to Joshua Tree National Park would bring more certainty that this wildlife habitat will be managed for conservation rather than profit.
  • Joshua Tree National Monument was established in 1936 after a grassroots campaign led by Minerva Hoyt urged President Roosevelt to protect the beautiful desert wildlands that were threatened by human activity, including the mass removal of cacti for gardens and the ridiculous practice of torching Joshua Trees to guide motorists at night.
Joshua Tree National Monument boundary as established in 1936.  The Eagle Mountain Area of current concern is highlighted in red. Map by the National Park Service.
  • America's demand for steel forced the National Park Service in 1948 to grant conditional use permits to industrialist Henry Kaiser for the Iron Chief mine in what was then Joshua Tree National Monument.  The Iron Chief mine was the smaller predecessor to the Eagle Mountain Mine.
  • In 1950, Congress withdrew thousands of acres from the Monument to make them available for large-scale mining operations, including the Eagle Mountain Mine.  The iron ore was sent to Kaiser's steel mill in Fontana, where processing resulted in significant air pollution.

Congress eviscerated Joshua Tree National Monument with Public Law 81-837, making thousands of acres of the Monument available to mining. Map by the National Park Service.
  • Competition from cheaper overseas steel and efforts to reduce air pollution resulted in the closure of Kaiser Steel mills in Fontana and the associated Eagle Mountain Mine next to Joshua Tree in the 1980s.
  • In 1989, Kaiser proposed to turn the open pit mine into a giant landfill for Los Angeles, seeking to import thousands of tons of garbage by truck.   The landfill would depend upon a land swap with the Bureau of Land Management.

The California Desert Protection Act of 1994 established Joshua Tree as a National Park, and restored some of the lands originally taken from the Monument in 1950.  But The Eagle Mountain landfill proposal prevented the return of the Eagle Mountain area to the Park. Map by the National Park Service.
  • After nearly two decades of legal wrangling, Los Angeles dropped plans to send its trash to Joshua Tree in 2013.
  • Kaiser Sells its mining claims to Eagle Crest, a company with another idea for the massive open pits of the old mine.
The Landfill Proposal Fades, but Energy Projects Loom
The landfill proposal was not the end to the Eagle Mountain saga.  After the landfill failure Kaiser sold its patented claims to Eagle Crest.  The Eagle Crest company wants to build a hydroelectric pumped storage project on the mine.   Another developer is proposing to build a utility-scale wind project on the Eagle Mountain lands that Congress removed from Joshua Tree in 1950, although that is not as far along as Eagle Crest.

Eagle Crest's plan is to fill one of the mine's lower open pits with groundwater.  When utility-scale solar and wind projects in the area generate excess clean energy that the grid cannot absorb, that energy would be used to pump the Eagle Crest water to another open pit at a higher elevation.  When the grid needs that energy again, the water would flow back to the lower pit through turbines, generating hydropower energy.  The project could use as much as 32 billion gallons of groundwater over its lifetime.  This is a seemingly frivolous use of water in a parched area, especially considering that excess renewable energy production could also be smoothed out with battery storage and demand response.

Although the National Park Service's proposed boundary change may not put an end to the Eagle Crest project, it would at least protect the surrounding wildlands that still serve as foraging habitat and corridors for wildlife.  Below is a map of the National Park Service's preferred alternative for the adjustment of the Joshua Tree National Park boundary in the Eagle Mountain area.

Monday, April 25, 2016

Wind Project To Be Crammed In Amidst Wilderness and Wildlife

Sweden-based company Eolus is reviving plans to build the Crescent Peak Wind project in southern Nevada on wildlands prized for wildlife and primitive recreation.  Basin & Range Watch learned that the company filed initial paperwork with the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to begin environmental review of the project.
This photo was taken along the northeastern boundary of the Wee Thump Joshua Tree Wilderness Area. The Crescent Peak area is in the distance on the right, and would be covered in giant wind turbines if Eolus gets its way.
Solitude or Industrial Zone?
Eolus is targeting a patchwork of unprotected lands in the Piute Valley that the BLM acknowledges are ideal for primitive recreation, and surrounded by conservation and wilderness designations. The Piute Valley offers a “range of outdoor recreation activities associated with a wide-open landscape with limited developments,” according to the BLM's own draft resource management plan.

The Piute Valley is roughly an hour drive south from the Las Vegas metropolitan area, offering an outdoor getaway to a population increasingly hemmed in by sprawl and industry. Wildlands to the northeast of Las Vegas are being bulldozed for utility-scale solar and industrial parks (Dry Lake Solar Energy Zone, Moapa Solar project, Apex Industrial Park), suffering the same fate as the Ivanpah Valley to the southwest of the city.

If the project is built, however, dozens of giant wind turbines towering hundreds of feet in the air would span across the ridgelines, with red hazard lights flashing at night. The industrial project would tarnish the wilderness qualities of the neighboring Wee Thump Joshua Tree Wilderness, South McCullough Wilderness, Mojave National Preserve and Castle Mountains National Monument.

Looking north along the Walking Box Ranch Road, a gateway to the Castle Mountains National Monument. Crescent Peak is in the distance on the left, forming the gentle northern edge of the New York Mountain range that spans the California and Nevada border.
Golden Eagle Hot Spot
The western Piute Valley and McCullough Mountain area also appears to host a high density of golden eagle nests. A Nevada Department of Wildlife survey found nearly 40 golden eagle nests within and near the proposed footprint of the wind project. The Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan identified several golden eagle nests on the California side of the border in the New York Mountains and Castle Mountains (Appendix R2.7 of the Draft DRECP).

The Eolus project would have to conduct extensive golden eagle surveys to determine an estimated impact on the species, but some project developers decide to move forward with projects despite high risks to golden eagles and other avian species.

Stay tuned for updates on this project proposal and its estimated impacts on wildlands and wildlife.

Above: An approximate outline of the proposed Crescent Peak wind project in red, imposed on a Google Earth image of southern Nevada and eastern California. Below: A map submitted in 2012 by the project's first proponent - Oak Creek Energy Systems.

Saturday, April 9, 2016

Interior Approval Threatens Mojave Wildlife

Interior this month signed the Record of Decision formally approving the Soda Mountain Solar project, despite landscape-level planning that identified this area as a significant opportunity to connect otherwise isolated bighorn sheep populations.  If Bechtel finds a utility company willing to purchase power from the 287 MW project, it will bulldoze nearly 4 square miles of intact desert next to the Mojave National Preserve to install photovoltaic panels that can just as easily be installed on rooftops or on already disturbed lands (more than 400 MW of rooftop solar capacity was installed in the first three months of 2015, alone).

These bighorn sheep are part of a large herd that inhabit the Soda Mountains. Their water source and foraging habitat would be jeopardized by the Soda Mountain Solar project if it is built, and an opportunity to connect this herd with the historical range of the bighorn sheep may be threatened by construction of the project.
Interior delayed issuing the record of decision for almost a year after it published a final environmental assessment, underscoring the difficulty Interior has faced trying to say yes to this unnecessary and controversial project. The area that would be bulldozed currently provides foraging habitat for bighorn sheep, and the water pumped by the project could threaten natural springs that wildlife - including the endangered Mojave Tui Chub - depend upon.  According to biological surveys, the site is inhabited by burrowing owls, kit fox, badgers, kangaroo rats, lesser nighthawk, Bewick' wren, Say's phoebe, and desert tortoises.  The area also provides forage for Townsend's big-eared, canyon, hoary, and Mexican free-tailed bats.

A detailed list of wildlife species observed or detected on the desert habitat targeted by Bechtel is available below.

The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP), which owns the nearest transmission lines to the Soda Mountain site, has already said it would not purchase power from the project because of its environmental impact.  However, Bechtel could still request permission to use the transmission lines to deliver power to another buyer.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Ivanpah Bird Mortality Report Released; Data on Separate Project Kept Secret

Biologists estimate that as many as 1,314 birds died at the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System (ISEGS) - a solar power tower project that also burns natural gas - from 25 May to 17 August 2015 based on partial searches of the sprawling facility.  Many of the birds died from collision with giant mirrors or after flying through zones of intense heat above the project.  The deaths last summer are in addition to thousands of others caused by the project since it was constructed.

During last summer at least two birds - a peregrine falcon and common raven - were severely burned by the project but still managed to fly close to the project's outer edge before dying, again suggesting that the study may underestimate the number of birds burned in the air space above the field of mirrors.  The peregrine falcon was found in July and euthanized in September; the raven was found already dead.

Ivanpah Solar project, mirrors (foreground) and tower.

According to a previous monitoring report, two other birds with burned feathers were found incidentally - not during organized surveys - outside the main project area.  All of these incidents are reasons that the mortality surveys should also cover the desert habitat beyond the fence line of the project since severely burned birds can fly a good distance before dropping to the ground.  This is not only important to get a more accurate sense of how many birds are dying, but also to identify the impacts of the project on all species, including those capable of flying beyond the current survey area with severe injuries.

Ivanpah Data Undermines Solar Reserve Claims

The California Energy Commission required that the Ivanpah Solar project developer (Brightsource Energy) study and monitor bird mortality at Ivanpah and make the results public.  This stands in contrast with the lack of data made available at the Crescent Dunes Solar project developed by Solar Reserve in Nevada.  Solar Reserve hastily attempted to portray the project as bird friendly after a leaked video showed the project burning as many as 130 birds during an initial test in January 2015.  The company then inaccurately claimed that simply focusing the mirrors away from the tower stops bird deaths.  Unfortunately, this is a misleading public relations move by Solar Reserve because the mirrors must be focused on the tower in order for the project to operate.  Also, birds can die at power tower projects from collisions with the mirrors or exposure to elevated heat above the mirror field.

The Crescent Dunes Solar project built by Solar Reserve in Nevada.  The company has issued misleading statements regarding the project's impact on birds, and ongoing monitoring of another solar power tower project - the Ivanpah Solar project in California - suggests there are no simple fixes that can prevent bird mortality at these projects. Photo by Basin & Range Watch.
Outside of the leaked video, little is known about the extent of ongoing bird mortality at the project, or what the Department of Interior (the project is built on public lands) is doing to monitor or mitigate the bird deaths.  Now, desert conservation group Basin & Range Watch has filed a legal challenge to compel the release of bird mortality data at the project.  The ongoing study of bird mortality at Ivanpah suggests there are no simple fixes, so Solar Reserve's Crescent Dunes project almost certainly continues to cause bird deaths.  Because these projects are built on public lands and have impacts on wildlife, it is important for us to study and understand the environmental impacts so we can make wiser choices as we develop and deploy renewable energy.  Keeping data in the dark only helps corporations, not the public.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Amazing Desert Wildlands Receive Permanent Protection

When I was young my grandparents took my brother, sister and me on a road trip from our home in the Victor Valley, California to their home in New Mexico, spending a night in Laughlin, Nevada on the way.  My exposure to the desert up until then was limited to the parcels of undeveloped private land scattered across the Victor Valley and surrounding its edges where my brother and I would play, spending most of our time in a 90 acre plot across the street from our home.  At the time, that corner of the desert seemed to offer endless opportunity for exploration, riding our bikes, finding lizards, identifying different wildflowers and insects, before even that lot was bulldozed for a new housing development. 

I remember staring out the window of my grandparent's car on that trip as we traversed Interstate 40, and eventually cutting up Highway 95 in Nevada to Laughlin, taking a dirt road that I think may have been Christmas Tree Pass.  I remember feeling endless amazement as the landscape unfolded.  Valley after vast valley, interrupted only by the desert mountain ranges that seemed to beckon one to climb them and enjoy a long gaze upon the majesty of the desert.

My view of the desert then was uncluttered by the knowledge I have now. I was not burdened by the names of mountains and valleys, by our maps of different jurisdictions and land use designations, of grazing allotments and areas of critical environmental concern. I didn't know about the studies that show how the highways isolate wildlife populations, of invasive plant species, or of proposed mines and energy projects that would one day threaten to undo the remaining landscape's wildness.  I could just stare out at the desert and imagine what creatures and wonders existed across that big space, extrapolating from my knowledge that even the small desert lot by our home offered so many surprises.

I remember stopping to marvel at lava rocks, probably near the Pisgah lava flow and Route 66.  I remember being confused by plants that looked like stunted Joshua trees that I would later know to be the Mojave yucca - common in the desert but not found in our 90 acre desert playground in the Victor Valley.  And clusters of cactus, probably the dense Bigelow cholla along the highway before reaching Needles, California.   I would let my imagination drift in the sweeping desert vistas.

We took this trip in the late 80s.  Unbeknown to me then, conservation groups had been working with Senator Cranston, and then Senator Feinstein to designate new wilderness areas and national parks to protect parts of the landscape.  That effort would eventually culminate in the California Desert Protection Act of 1994, protecting places that I would eventually enjoy visiting after college.  Watching sunsets, photographing wildflowers, and listening to the coyotes sing.  But the desert's offering of solitude and wildness remained in harm's way as energy companies proposed industrializing large tracts of the desert.  My favorite campsites in the Mojave National Preserve, for example, could overlook valleys full of wind turbines and solar panels if action was not taken to protect this treasured landscape.

On February 12, 2016 - over two decades after that road trip introduced me to just how grand the desert truly is -  the President designated the Mojave Trails National Monument, Castle Mountains National Monument, and Sand to Snow National Monument.  The monuments tie together years of previous conservation work, and protect the rhythm of nature and the soothing contours of the vast desert landscape that stretches beyond the horizon.  I will always enjoy the memory of that road trip with my grandparents, cruising by places I would later explore as an adult.  And with a newborn daughter, it's good to know that she too will be able to experience the California desert as I have.

A thunderstorm builds over the Old Woman Mountains Wilderness area, south of the Mojave National Preserve.  The valley at the foot of the mountains - partially obscured - is protected as part of the new Mojave Trails National Monument, connecting decades of conservation work to protect this beautiful desert horizon.