Saturday, February 27, 2010

Solar Companies Rushing the Certification Process?

Mr. Kevin Emmerich of Basin and Range Watch recently noted in a comment on this blog how the California Energy Commission (CEC) appears to be bending over backward to accommodate an expedited certification process.  As clarified in the comments, it appears that the energy companies (BrightSource, Solar Millennium, etc) are rushing to meet a deadline imposed in Washington mandating that projects break ground by the end of the year (2010) in order to qualify for Federal financial backing.

Underscoring Mr. Emmerich's point, a transcript posted on the Ridgecrest Solar Project site from an informational hearing, a Deputy Director from the CEC commented that the compressed timeline requested by the applicant (Solar Millennium in the case of Ridgecrest) was going to pose a strain on the CEC and other agencies--such as BLM, Fish and Wildlife, etc--involved in the certification process since the site chosen by Solar Millennium in Ridgecrest raises significant questions regarding biological resources. As noted in a previous post, the Ridgecrest site is rich in desert tortoise and likely a prime spot for Mojave ground squirrels. 

From the transcripts of Mr. O'Brien's comments on 5 January:

"I just want to make the committee aware and, obviously, the applicant that the staff has concerns with the project schedule for the Ridgecrest project in front of us here. The major concern that we have, notwithstanding the fact that 12 months for any solar project would -- would represent a very, very fast schedule, are the biological issues associated with this project.

Mr. Anderson, our biologist, referred to those, desert tortoise, and also Mojave Ground Squirrel. Mojave Ground Squirrel connectivity issues I -- I think are significant issues that are going to be difficult to resolve in a timely manner. Obviously, from staff’s perspective and from the perspective of the other agencies appropriate mitigation is going to be needed.

So I just want to make sure the committee understands the difficult position I think that all the agencies here find ourselves in, in terms of trying to review this project and these other projects in a very, very expedited manner. And we can not move projects through in an expedited manner if, in fact, we have difficult issues that can not be quickly resolved.

And so the applicant, you know, needs to understand that. Obviously, the agencies will do everything we can to move this and other projects forward. But, obviously, there are issues outside of our control, and those issues are associated with the impacts of each one of these projects. Thank you."

Ever feel like you're being watched?

A Leopard Lizard in the Mojave Desert, watching me carefully from the shade of a Creosote shrub.  Once I got too close he/she (?) darted off and left me no chance to pursue with my camera.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Mojave Desert Future On the Table

Many of you have probably read that the Federal Government promised $1.4 billion in loan guarantees for BrightSource Energy's proposed solar site in the Mojave Desert's Ivanpah Valley.  Even though the California Energy Commission (CEC) has not yet made a final decision regarding whether or not to approve the solar site, the political pressure is clearly in favor of BrightSource despite the biological importance of the site (read more about the importance here).   The CEC's "Presiding Member" is due to make a final decision regarding the Ivanpah proposal soon, which will be one of many decisions made by our elected officials or policymaking bodies over the next year that could make this a critical year for the Mojave.  In addition to Ivanpah, you can expect the CEC to also make a decision regarding the future of several more large energy sites, to include Ridgecrest, Abengoa, and Calico in the Mojave, and Blythe, Palen, Rice and Solar Two sites in the Colorado Desert. In addition to CEC's efforts, the Federal Government is moving forward in its consideration of Solar Energy Development Zones which would further encourage industrialization in the Mojave.

Meanwhile, population centers all around the Mojave continue to erode the stability of this desert.  Las Vegas and Primm are still intent on a large airport in the Ivanpah Valley, and private developers received financial backing from a Chinese bank to develop a Maglev train linking Victorville and Las Vegas.  San Bernardino County has not abandoned plans to build the "inter-county connector," a multi-lane highway linking Victorville and Palmdale that would span the western Mojave and bring with it economic development incentives, turning quiet solitude into warehouses and business parks. Fort Irwin is looking to cement its southward expansion with a potentially disastrous desert tortoise relocation program--although leaving the tortoises in the path of tanks is not an option either.

The primary effort to provide balance to this chaotic rush to develop Mojave wilderness is Senator Feinstein's proposed California Desert Protection Act of 2010 (CDPA 2010), which is already meeting opposition from those who believe it would lock up too much land and prevent its economic or military uses.  What looked to be a friendly legislative environment in Washington for conservation efforts in early 2009 has turned into an arena full of doubt and political priorities that eclipse CDPA 2010, let alone wise management of public lands.  If CDPA 2010 is to stand a chance, America's elected officials will have to be convinced that preserving Mojave wilderness stands for more than "locking up" sensitive habitat.  In these economic times people will choose jobs over tortoises.  In fact, preserving Mojave wilderness at this juncture, which CDPA aims to do, is just sensible land management.  Economic and military uses of the Mojave do not come to a halt if CDPA is passed.  They are in fact growing, which is why preserving our inspiring natural heritage is so important.

We have already learned that wilderness can be undone.  The animal that graces California's State flag is a haunting reminder of that fact.  But if our policymakers and elected officials choose to pave over Ivanpah Valley, mine in Old Woman Mountains, or put up a solar plant in a quiet wilderness that brought peace to generations of Americans, then they do so relegating the immeasurable and boundless value of many Mojave treasures to the confines of photographs and text that fall far short of capturing what is lost.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Apple Valley Considering CDPA 2010 tonight; Victorville Council on March 2nd

The Apple Valley Town Council will reconsider its position on the California Desert Protection Act of 2010 (CDPA 2010) at tonight's meeting, and the Victorville City Council will consider its position on CDPA on 2 March.  As of 16 February Victorville Mayor Rudy Cabriales was not sure he had enough information to make an informed decision, and Council Member Caldwell was opposed, citing concerns that military training and mining interests would be impeded, according to minutes from the February meeting.

Ridgecrest Solar Site: Ivanpah of the West Mojave?

Preliminary surveys of the proposed site for the Ridgecrest Solar Power Project in the western Mojave Desert indicate it is currently home to several sensitive species, even though it is not far from the outskirts of Ridgecrest.   The proposed facility would disturb roughly 2,000 acres, and would be situated on a site already crossed by some dirt roads, and adjacent to Highway 395.  During surveys in 2009,  however, biologists spotted approximately 50 desert tortoise, including 40 in the proposed disturbance area, and four active Kit fox burrows were also found.  An active burrow for an American Badger was discovered within the project buffer zone, and four primary burrows for the Western burrowing owl were found within the proposed disturbance area.

Although the endangered Mojave ground squirrel was not spotted during the surveys, biologists judged that there is a high likelihood that the squirrels occur on the site because of high quality habitat in the area, and the existence of Mojave ground squirrel within five miles of the site. Le Conte's thrasher and Loggerhead shrike were also present in the proposed site.

The Ridgecrest Solar Power Project would be composed of two solar fields--approximately 755 and 685 acres respectively--and power output would be 250MW.  The project would use dry-cooling technology.  Basin and Range Watch and the Western Watersheds Project have been granted a petition to intervene as of mid-February 2010.

The high number of desert tortoises already discovered in preliminary surveys and the likely presence of Mojave ground squirrel and Kit fox will likely translate into high mitigation costs and complicated translocation programs.  The Draft Environmental Impact Statement is expected to be published on 26 March 2010, although it seems that in order to propose robust and accurate mitigation procedures, more fidelity on the site's biological resources will be necessary.

View Ridgecrest Solar Power Project in a larger map

Monday, February 22, 2010

Ivanpah Mitigation Details Available

BrightSource Energy's submitted details and environmental analysis for its alternative site configuration--redesigned primarily to avoid areas on the site with high concentrations of special status plants--has been posted to the California Energy Commission (CEC) website.  A previous post on this blog provided a synopsis of BrightSource Energy's press release on the matter.   The details provide more illumination on the altered impact of the proposed redesign, although the massive site would still displace, and likely result in the loss of many rare plants and desert tortoise.   Some of the greatest overall impacts of Ivanpah will remain, to include the displacement of many genetically significant desert tortoises, grazing land for Peninsula bighorn sheep, and ephemeral washes.  Permitting so much construction in the Ivanpah Valley reduces biologically diverse Mojave Desert habitat and sets a precedent for accepting a private company's ill-informed siting decision with nominal mitigation measures that do not sufficiently addresses the overarching problems plaguing the Mojave's future.  The result: squeezing "translocated" and "salvaged" survivors into increasingly smaller pockets of Mojave wilderness, and dismissing an opportunity to demonstrate that energy companies must locate sites on previously disturbed land of less biological significance.

You can see in the graphic below that the redesigned Ivanpah would reduce its footprint in the northern and middle sections where studies indicate many Rusby's desert mallow, desert pincushion, Mojave milkweed, Parish's club cholla, and nine-awned pappus grass occur.  The four known occurrences of small-flowered androstephium remain within the site footprint, but BrightSource's submitted plan indicates that the plants would be "salvaged."  Experts that testified at the Ivanpah evidentiary hearings in January indicated the relocation of the plant species may not be effective and could result in the loss of the plant.

The largest mitigation area measures 433 acres and the land would be open to the Mojave Desert north of the project site.  Construction of a gas line to the Kern River Gas Line would run through this northern mitigation area, however.    The two other mitigation areas measure 38 and 5 acres.  The 5 acre parcel would be isolated within the Ivanpah site, and the 38 acre plot would also be positioned between Ivanpah 1 and Ivanpah 2.   A screenshot of the northern mitigation area is copied below, although you can see the full report on the CEC website under "Applicant's Biolgical Mitigation Proposal".  In short, the yellow squares represent Mojave milkweed occurences, green represents Parish's club cholla, red crosses represent desert pincushion, purple circles represent nine-awned pappus grass, etc.

BrightSource assesses that it would reduce it's required grading in the Ivanpah 3 area by 88% as a result of the mitigation area, since much of that area of the site would have required grading to remove rocks.  BrightSource also assesses that many plants in the remaining project footprint that are not relocated can be "avoided" during construction and operation of the plant--perhaps an unrealistic definition of avoidance.  Even though BrightSource prides itself on the reduced need for grading in its construction techniques, the site would still need to be mowed, and the construction of mirrors and towers ultimately would have a serious negative impact on any plants "avoided" in the site footprint as a result of shading, vehicle traffic, etc.

This proposal would be better than the original since the redesign would spare so many special status plants, but the inclusion of so many plants in the "avoided" category despite remaining on the site footprint is misleading.  And if BrightSource is permitted to build even this redesigned site, the benefits ultimately spare some local species at the expense of a more strategic management of dwindling Mojave habitat.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

CEC Staff Prefers Smaller Solar Plant in Colorado Desert

The California Energy Commission (CEC) released it's Staff Assessment and Draft Environmental Impact Statement for the Stirling Energy Systems (SES) Solar Two site earlier this month.  SES Solar Two -- the twin of the Calico Solar site proposed for the Mojave Desert near Pisgah--is a proposed solar plant utilizing "SunCatcher" technology on nearly 6500 acres of land in the Colorado Desert, just West of El Centro.  In its assessment of biological resource, the CEC Staff indicates that it prefers a reduced site footprint in order to minimize impacts on ephemeral washes and the Flat Tailed Horned Lizard (FTHL), which is considered a special status species.

CEC judged that the largest ecological impact the construction of SES Solar Two would have would be the alteration of hydrological features--primarily ephemeral washes--and how this could negatively affect the collection of State waters.  SES provided "Drainage Avoidance Alternatives" which involved site footprints that avoided many of the ephemeral washes.  In the Staff Assessment, the CEC indicates its preference for Drainage Avoidance Alternative #2, which would reduce the project size by nearly half to 3,153 acres, and reduce the number of "SunCatcher" solar dishes from approximately 30,000 to 16,915.  CEC Staff also judged that Alternative #2 reduced the impact of the site on FTHL habitat by nearly 50%.

View SES Solar Two in a larger map

The CEC certification process for Solar Two is ongoing, however, and a final determination has not yet been made concerning the ultimate configuration of the site.  It is significant however that the Staff have already proposed such a considerable reduction in the site's footprint.  The Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System (ISEGS) also involves a reduced site footprint in order to spare special status plant species, although this proposal came from the applicant (BrightSource Energy) and only amounts to a 12% reduced footprint.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Abengoa and Calico Solar Sites Inch Forward

See below for a summary of incremental developments in two Mojave Desert solar projects:

Abengoa Solar, which proposed a water-intensive solar project for the Harper Dry Lake area just west of Barstow submitted additional data on their water source--an aquifer deep beneath Harper Dry Lake from which they would have to draw millions of gallons of water in order to cool off their solar plant (see previous post).  Abengoa is not the only solar site that would tap precious water supplies. The Beacon Solar project near California City also proposes to tap local ground water, although Kern County is now requiring that Beacon transition to recycled water from the nearby municipality within 5 years of the start of operations.  Beacon Solar will also be required to fund programs that off-set their impact on State waters by preserving ephemeral washes and removing non-native tamarisk from other desert waterways.  Perhaps similar conditions will be requested of Abengoa.  We should know in early March.


The Calico Solar project--formerly known as SES Solar One-- recently submitted their planned construction schedule which involves breaking ground by October 2010.  However, this will leave Calico Solar with a tight schedule considering that the California Energy Commission (CEC) is not planning to submit the Staff Assessment and Draft Environmental Impact Statement until March 16, which will be followed by a comment period and evidentiary hearings.  The CEC is currently consulting with Fish and Widlife on the biological impacts of the site (see this previous post for a summary of biological data surveyed at the site and submitted by the company).  Calico is anxious to begin construction by October 2010 according to one of their submissions to the CEC, possibly due to deadlines involved in filing for Federal financial backing which requires that solar projects undertake construction work by the end of the year in order to qualify for incentives.  CEC indicated they would like to make a final decision on the project by 30 September 2010, but Calico LLC would like access to the site immediately after that date in order to begin relocating Desert Tortoises, according to a submission from Calico.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

The Mojave and the American Spirit

The California Energy Commission (CEC) has not yet updated the Ivanpah docket to include BrighSource Energy's proposed changes to the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System, but I plan to post a review of any details presented by BrightSource to the CEC.  My blog has been a bit quiet lately, but I just wrote a letter for Congressman Lewis asking him to support the California Desert Protection Act of 2010--which I may post here later--but if you feel inspired to do the same you can find the Congressman's contact information on his website.  I'll leave you with a quote from "The Frontier In American History" written by a historian who assessed that open wilderness fostered the American spirit:

"The disappearance of the frontier, the closing of the era which was marked by the influence of the West as a form of society, brings with it new problems of social adjustment, new demands for considering our past ideals and our present needs...we shall do well also to recount our historic ideals, to take stock of those purposes, and fundamental assumptions that have gone to make the American spirit and the meaning of America in world history."  --Frederick Jackson Turner

I do not think that the frontier has disappeared.  I think there are still pockets of wilderness left that inspire the "intrinsic excellence of the common man," and the "ideal of individualism," American traits that Turner felt were endangered by the loss of wilderness.  The CEC's eventual ruling on Ivanpah will be another incremental step toward preserving this inspiration, or paving it over.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

"Useless Land"

I recently stumbled across a blog--which is an unabashed cheerleader for unimpeded solar energy development--that criticized opposition to BrightSource Energy's Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System, and labeled the Mojave Desert as "useless land" that was perfect for solar energy siting.  The blog obviously did not acknowledge the compromises that need to be made as we pursue renewable energy in California, let alone a basic understanding of the Mojave Desert environment.  Yes, some desert land will need to be developed with utility-scale solar.  But the Mojave is not devoid of life, and many Americans appreciate un-interrupted wilderness.  As for Ivanpah, science clearly shows that the site is significant for its unique desert tortoise population, and occurrences of rare desert plants.    While these counter-arguments are likely not news to regular readers of this blog, I had to overcome my initial shock and remind myself that the "useless land" argument is unfortunately one that can gain traction in much of the US, especially since solar energy's economic benefits are touted from Wall Street to the White House.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Brightsource Attempts to Address Biological Concerns

BrightSource Energy--the company seeking to build a large solar electric generating system in the Mojave's Ivanpah Valley--submitted an alternative configuration for its proposed site in an attempt to address environmental impact concerns.  According to a press release on the company's website, the facility would be 12% smaller than the original proposal and would produce 392 MW of energy instead of 400 MW.  The alternative configuration has not yet been posted in detail on the California Energy Commission (CEC) website, but when the details are available you can expect an updated post on this blog.

According to BrightSource, the reduced facility footprint would avoid an area of the original site judged to contain the highest density of rare plants, leave the largest ephemeral washes intact, and reduce the need for desert tortoise relocations by 15%.  The Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for Ivanpah estimated 25 tortoises inhabit the site, but the actual number could be as much as 3 or 4 times higher, as a commenter from Basin and Range Watch pointed out on a previous blog post.  It's not clear if Brightsource is basing it's estimated relocation need on this potentially inaccurate survey.

Copied below is an excerpt from Brightsource's press release, which can be found in its entirety on the company's website.

From BrightSource: "The mitigation proposal for the Ivanpah project is a direct response to comments and suggestions made during the Ivanpah permitting process’ public comment period. If accepted by the CEC and BLM, the alternative design would:
•    Reduce the footprint of the third Ivanpah plant by 23 percent, avoiding the area identified by environmental groups during the public comment period as posing the greatest concern.
•    Reduce the footprint of the overall Ivanpah project by about 12 percent 

•    Reduce expected desert tortoise relocations by approximately 15 percent (based on previous
protocol surveys of the project site; the actual number will depend on where tortoises are at
the time they are relocated)

•    Avoid the area identified as having the highest rare plant density 
•    Reduce the number of towers at the third Ivanpah plant from five to one; reduce overall
number of towers at the Ivanpah project from seven to three 

•    Reduce the potential maximum number of heliostats by about 40,000 
•    Avoid the area that would have required the most grading and large rock removal in the solar

•    Leave the largest natural stormwater features (washes) in the northern portion of the site

•    Reduce the total gross capacity of the Ivanpah project from 440 megawatts to 392 megawatts"

San Bernardino County Catching up with Mojave Energy Debate

San Bernardino County's Land Use Services Department and Board of Supervisors are trying to keep up with the  gold rush of the century as various energy companies seek to build vast solar and wind energy projects in the Mojave Desert, the bulk of which lies within County lines.  The County's priorities are predictably economic, but this has led County Supervisor Brad Mitzelfelt to speak out against the acquisition and preservation of land to off-set the loss of Desert tortoise habitat in Ivanpah, according to an article in the Press Enterprise.  You can read more about the mitigation requirement on my previous post on the subject.

The County assesses that the preservation of tortoise land as a mitigation strategy would lock up land and preclude other economic activity. Mitzelfelt and Brightsource seem to favor a different mitigation scenario that does not involve setting aside land, but instead funding tortoise research and existing preservation efforts.  While biologists did testify that current tortoise recovery efforts are under-funded,  land acquisition and preservation remains an important mitigation strategy due to the increasing demands from military training, population growth, and the rush of renewable energy applications for Mojave Desert land.

The County may also be raising its voice in the solar energy debate because it seeks to ensure that jobs for construction and operation of the solar projects benefit County residents, as opposed to neighboring jurisdictions, such as Las Vegas.  According to the County's Land Use Service's website, the County also recently changed its zoning districts to accommodate energy development.  Although the altered zoning code's stated purpose is to "ensure that renewable energy generation facilities are designed and located in a manner that minimizes visual and safety impacts on the surrounding community," the code does little else but to establish setback from nearby roads and dictate the type of fencing for solar projects. (Section 84.29 of the Title 8 Development Code).  For wind energy, the county sets the height limit for wind turbines at 500 feet.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Ivanpah Hearings Underscore Brightsource's Poor Site Choice; Reluctance to Fund Mitigation

I finally got around to reading the transcripts from the 11-12 January California Energy Commission (CEC) hearings regarding the impact of the proposed Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System (ISEGS) on biological resources.  The January hearings underscore the reluctance of Brightsource Energy--the company intending to build the nearly 4,000-acre facility in the East Mojave--to pay for the CEC's request that 8,000 acres be purchased and set aside in perpetuity for the protection of sensitive species, to include the Desert Tortoise and the Rusby's Desert Mallow.  In addition to the acquisition of 8000 acres, Brightsource would also have to pay funds to help manage existing sensitive habitat on BLM land.

Brightsource would be expected to pay approximately $20 million dollars for the "BIO-17" (which is the designation of CEC's proposed mitigation plan) efforts to offset the loss of important desert tortoise habitat in the Ivanpah Valley.  During the hearing, scientists and experts defended the need for such an expensive mitigation effort by noting a number of characteristics that make the Ivanpah site unique from a biological stand point.  These characteristics include:

--The 25 or so desert tortoises living on the BLM property sought after by Brightsource belong to an "evolutionary significant unit" (ESU) of tortoises, whose gene pool is important to maintaining genetic diversity among all tortoises in the Mojave.  Genetic diversity is key to any species' survival.

--Botanists consulted on the project site also concluded that the site is significant for its plant life because of a diverse array of species and variations in the habitat, to include Mojave, Yuba and Nevada ephemeral scrub.  In addition to the Rusby's Desert Mallow, the site hosts Mojave Milkweed, Parish Club Cholla, and Desert Pincushion.

--Of all of the rare plants, botanists testified that the Mojave Milkweed's occurence on the Ivanpah site caused the most concern, since there are only 22 known occurrences of the plant and most of them are on the Ivanpah site.

--Bighorn sheep are believed to migrate through nearby mountains, and construction on the site could impact grazing and migration.

Because Ivanpah is one of the first large utility-scale solar applications to contend for biologically significant land, the process has illuminated a number of key challenges that will likely only be compounded by the multitude of other applications for energy construction on Mojave Desert land.  Some of the issues that arose during the hearing include:

--The CEC staff and California Department of Fish and Game experts conceded that the identification of available and biologically suitable land for acquisition as part of the desert tortoise mitigation proposal will be difficult for future solar projects.  The Ivanpah mitigation plan would require 8000 acres of suitable land to set aside and offset the loss of tortoise habitat for this project.  If other proposed solar projects come online, nearly 120 square miles of mitigation land would need to be acquired from private sources, which would be difficult.  State and Federal authorities are looking to establish a mechanism through the Renewable Energy Action Team (REAT) that would consolidate mitigation efforts, which will be the subject of a future post on this blog.

--Biologists testified that the Desert Tortoise Recovery Plan  has not been sufficiently funded, which is one reason the efforts to save this endangered species have not been as successful as desired.  Energy development at Ivanpah and other sites would thus compound the problems faced by the species, and squeeze their population and territory when recovery efforts implemented years ago have not yet allowed the species to establish a stable foothold.   For this reason the BLM would likely use their portion of the Ivanpah mitigation funds to manage existing tortoise recovery efforts.

--The proposed desert tortoise relocation has been criticized since similar relocation efforts at Fort Irwin have resulted in additional hardships on the relocated tortoises.

--The Ivanpah plan would be one of the first attempts to implement and monitor plant avoidance and rare species protection efforts on such a large scale in the Mojave Desert.  Projects in other types of habitat have shown that plant avoidance and protection is in a relatively developmental phase, and at least one botanist familiar with Mojave plants is concerned that the proposed avoidance and mitigation efforts will preserve the rare plants on the site.

View Ivanpah Valley in a larger map

Unfortunately, Brightsource appeared to be focused on its bottom-line, and their representatives at the hearing aimed to question the viability of CEC's proposed biological mitigation efforts as unprecedented and unrealistic.  Brightsource pointed out that acquiring 8000 acres of mitigation land would be difficult, and since future energy projects would have an even more difficult time finding suitable mitigation land, Brightsource conveyed that it was unfair that the CEC expected it to acquire the land.  Brightsource's questions also tried to point out that there were other threats to the desert tortoise that were not required to purchase mitigation land in an attempt to undermine the CEC's proposal.  Panel experts, however, noted the Luz  energy project that involved a 5:1 mitigation condition, which is an even larger ratio than the condition imposed on Brightsource.  Brightsource's mitigation condition would be 3:1, which is composed of a requirement to acquire mitigation land at a 2:1 ratio for its planned 4,000 acre project, thus requiring the company to find 8000 acres.  The remaining 1:1 would consist of funds paid by Brightsource that would fund tortoise management efforts.

As I've noted in previous posts regarding the Ivanpah project, solar energy is a necessary step toward reducing dependency on fossil fuels and reducing carbon emissions.  However, there is a smart way to build solar energy capacity, and companies need to learn that not every location in the Mojave Desert is suitable for such vast fields of solar panels.  Other companies have managed to locate and acquire more ideal sites, such as former agricultural lands, and lands already disturbed by nearby population centers.  Unfortunately, Brightsource chose what has been characterized as a biologically significant site, and if the project is allowed to go forward it should not be without costs.  Brightsource is applying to use public land, managed by the BLM.  There are other uses and different types of value accorded to the land on which Brightsource intends to build.   Brightsource's proposed use does not outweigh the value placed on that land as the January hearings clearly show, so the company should have to come to terms with its poor siting decision and appropriately off-set the damage its choice will impose on the Mojave Desert, if it's even allowed to move forward at all.

ORV Damage in Yucca Valley

There is a great editorial in the Hi-Desert Star by Russel Drake drawing attention to off-road vehicle (ORV) damage to a key wildlife corridor connecting the San Bernardino Mountains to the Mojave Desert.  The land, known as Section 11, was set aside as off-limits to ORVs but signs had not yet been posted when the land was trampled in early December 2009.  The Yucca Valley Town Council still plans to post signage prohibiting ORV use and illegal trash dumping.  The land in question was identified in research used by the Morongo Basin Open Space Group to argue for its preservation.  You can access some of the research on ecosystem linkages on the SC Wildlands website here.

Published February 10 on the Hi-Desert Star website:

Land under attack is critical to wild animals

By Russell Drake
Yucca Valley
Published: Wednesday, February 10, 2010 1:49 AM CST
When wildlife resource advocate Pat Flanagan told the Yucca Valley Town Council last October that Section 11, a square mile of town-owned desert, deserved protection as a “wildlife highway” between the San Bernardino Mountains and the eastern Mojave, council members unanimously approved placement of signs banning off-road vehicles and illegal trash dumpers.

But before the edict could be carried out, some unknowns ripped Section 11 right up the gut. Within days following a gentle evening rain Dec. 12, while the ground was still wet, two heavy, wide-tracked vehicles entered Section 11 where the chaparrosa wash crosses Sage Avenue on its way to an intersection with Pipes Canyon Wash, part of the network of “wildlife highways” critical to animal mobility.

Flattening brush and a myriad of desert plants on both sides of the wash and up the middle, the big machines laid down a trail of mayhem to an intersection with an ugly scar formed by ORV tracks slicing diagonally across Section 11 from near the corner of Highway 247 and New Horizons Road, to the northeast corner of Aberdeen Drive and Sage Avenue.

The drivers exited Section 11 with a wild ride across a barren mesa struggling to recover from an August 1995 burn that left hundreds of whitened Joshua tree skeletons in its wake.

Who were the mysterious drivers? Were they off-roaders sending a message to those who would limit their access to wildlands? Where they a sheriff’s posse of four-by-fours chasing fleeing dirt bikers? Or could they have been only joy riders impetuously turning into the desert for a quick high?

Recreational driving can be expensive. “One four-wheel-drive vehicle can do $40,000 to $50,000 in damage to the desert in a single day,” says David Bainbridge, associate professor of business at Alliant International University in San Diego. Dr. Bainbridge has written a book on the subject.

Desert ecologist Jeffrey E. Lovich of the U.S Geological Survey in Flagstaff, Ariz., says repairing ORV damage in the Colorado and Mojave deserts alone could exceed $1 billion and “take many years.”

Seemingly an insignificant patch on the vast Mojave checkerboard, Section 11 is becoming a significant player, if not a superstar, in the battle to save the desert from recreational ORV holocaust and other mindless assaults on defenseless land.

“Section 11 is part of something bigger,” observes Joshua Tree National Park chief ecologist Michael Vamstad.

In recognition of its key location, Section 11 is outlined in red on a “linkage design” map used by Stephanie Weigel, a regional land use planner with the Morongo Basin Open Space Group, to study ways in which humans and wildlife can coexist on the shrinking Mojave Desert.

The new type of map was prepared by Kristeen Penrod of Southcoast Wildlands and funded by The Wildlands Conservancy.

As the term “linkage design” suggests, the map shows the connectivity of wildlife corridors (highways) between the San Bernardino Mountains and the Bullion Mountains behind the Twentynine Palms Marine base.

One early morning last summer, Dawn Noble, who has lived on the border of Section 11 since 1970, saw a veritable herd of coyotes, numbering an estimated of 20 to 30 animals consisting equally of adults and half-grown pups, crossing the beleaguered desert outpost, an encouraging sign that it still serves as a key link in the chain of wild-animal highways.

In an effort to preserve this function, the town expects in weeks to complete the installation of signs banning off-road vehicles  and trash dumping, according to Deputy Town Manager Shane Stueckle.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

ORV Ordinance Still Under Consideration

The San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors has not yet voted on whether or not to repeal current County Ordinance # 3973, which mandates that private property owners obtain a permit in order to hold large off-road vehicle (ORV) gatherings. If you are interested in voicing your opinion on this issue, you still have time to call or contact the Supervisors, and there contact info can be found at the County website.  At the time of my previous post on this issue, it appeared that the Board could vote on the ordinance by the end of January.  It is no longer clear when this vote will make the agenda, since it does not appear on the February 9 agenda on their website.

Hi-Desert Wilderness Workshop: February 11th

The California Wilderness Coalition is sponsoring a workshop in Victorville on February 11th to discuss Senator Feinstein's California Desert Protection Act 2010 (CDPA 2010) and what you can do to ensure preservation of Mojave Desert wilderness.   You can read my initial posts on CDPA 2010 here and here. 

Here is the relevant information if you're interested in attending the workshop:

Location: Sterling Inn - 17738 Francesca Road Victorville, CA 92395-5105
Date: February 11th, 2010
Time: 630-830PM

Western Wilderness Conference: April 8-11

An agenda has been announced for the April 8-11 2010 Western Wilderness Conference, to be held in Berkeley California.  The conference discussions and speakers will address an array of issues regarding efforts to manage and conserve wilderness throughout the Western US, but there will be a workshop focused on the "Campaign for the California Desert: Then and Now."  You can get more information on the Western Wilderness website.

Monday, February 8, 2010

CEC Staff Assessment of Thirsty Abengoa Project Due in March

The California Energy Commission (CEC) indicated in early February that it sought to release it's Staff Assessment--which is usually accompanied by the draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS)--for the Abengoa Solar project in March 2010.   The Abengoa Solar project would be built north of Helendale and west of Barstow.  You can read more about the Abengoa Solar project in one of my previous posts, but ultimately this project's primary vulnerability is its cooling system, which will require millions of gallons of water a year.  According to the CEC, it is still waiting on more information from Abengoa Solar to complete its analysis of the soil and water impacts.

$50 Million Burried in the Mojave

That's right folks, if you are special enough to have access to ample capital, financing and real estate in the Mojave you can lay claim to thousands of acre-feet of water (1 acre foot = 325,851 gallons) deposited underneath the Mojave Desert, and earn $50 million dollars per year for as long as the water lasts, according to a Business Week article.  Unfortunately, this treasure hunt can impact the wildlife and people of the Southwest long after the treasure is spent.   Cadiz Inc, which has been growing lemons and raisins on some of its Mojave land as it conducted studies to ascertain the volume of subterranean water it could sell, is planning to pump that water as soon as it can manage the paper work.  The Cadiz funded study, conducted by CH2M Hill, suggests there is enough water for up to 400,000 people in the aquifer.  Although Feinstein has voiced opposition to the pumping, the political forces in California are likely to swamp the Senator's clout.

So what's the big deal?  The water is underground, what harm could it do if we put a straw in it and drink it all up (actually most of the water is likely to feed industry, energy and agriculture)?  Past studies have shown that tapping underground aquifers leads to shifts in the subterranean water balance that can ultimately leave ground-water fed ponds dry, endangering desert pupfish populations.  Worse yet, A US Geological Survey study showed that aquifer pumping was the most likely culprit for land subsidence.  The 2003 study found large earth surface depressions near agriculture development in the Mojave Desert, with some areas sinking as much as 4 inches.  The danger of land subsidence is that sinking land can close off underground aquifers, reducing the storage capacity underground and the ability of these aquifers to "re-charge".  If our water problems today are bad enough, what happens when mother nature's water tank shrinks?

View Cadiz land in a larger map

Sunday, February 7, 2010

California Approves SCE's Distributed Solar Generation

The California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) approved of Southern California Edison's (SCE) proposal to develop up to 500 megawatts of energy using distributed solar generation, which would largely consist of contracting with "Independent Power Producers" to install roof-top photovoltaic solar panels.  As SCE, and possible Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E)--which is also considering distributed solar generation--standardize the process for distributed solar generation the benefits of this model may take root and alleviate some of the pressure on the Mojave Desert.

Distributed generation can take the form of up to 1 or 2 megawatts of generation from panels placed on top of large commercial buildings, raised over parking lots, etc.  Compared to the vast "utility-scale" projects being proposed in pristine Mojave Desert habitat, distributed generation will bring considerable savings since it will not require a large transmission network, it takes advantage of the under-utilized space in urban landscapes, does not require lengthy approval processes, and adds reliability since no single event can jeopardize power transmission or generation.  Best of all, we can enjoy more undisturbed Mojave Desert wilderness if we produce energy where we live, instead of on a fragile national treasure.

However, do not expect SCE and PG&E distributed energy projects to spell a new era in responsible energy just yet.  The demand for renewable energy is still high enough, and the pace of distributed energy is still slow enough, that governments and energy companies will still view vast solar farms in the Mojave as the quickest way to meet California legislated standards that 20% of power originate from renewable energy sources.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Some Wind Farms May Kill Thousands of Bats Each Year

A recent study published by the US Geological Survey Fort Collins Science Center indicates that wind turbines kill certain species of bats possibly through direct impact but also because of significant changes in air pressure caused by the rotating blades.  This is an additional factor that needs to be considered in when assessing the impact of wind energy projects in the Mojave, such as the Granite Mountain site near Apple Valley. 

Researchers are still studying what factors may be drawing the bats to wind turbines, and which species are the most vulnerable, but the study estimates that some sites may be responsible for the deaths of thousands of bats each year.  An increase in wind energy farms in the Mojave could significantly impact a key pollinator and insect predator.  

Ideally research will be able to identify what is causing the deaths and inform the siting and design of wind energy farms so that this renewable energy source can be tapped.  Bird and bat deaths aside, wind energy would otherwise have less impact than solar energy on the Mojave Desert, since solar has a much larger footprint than wind farms.  Energy firms and the federal government should invest in more research before we rush technology into action that kills thousands of birds and bats and replicating Rachel Carson's "Silent Spring" in our new century.

I blogged too soon

In my post on 1 February, Phantoms of Mojave Desert Transportation Projects, I noted the relatively quiet state of two major transportation projects that would impact the Mojave Desert, to include the high speed rail line titled the "Desert Xpress".  In the post, I surmised that since Federal funds were allocated for the LA-San Francisco line that may have doomed the prospects of the Desert Xpress, which would connect Victorville with Las Vegas.  In the past couple of weeks developments seem to have given new life to both the Desert Xpress and a Mag-Lev train concept, despite the diversion of Federal funds to the LA-SF line.

Even though some political opponents termed the project the "Sin City Express" and derided the use of funds as wasteful. Although the wasteful spending claims create political reluctance, the project actually would have some political traction otherwise because Nevada Democrat Harry Reid and California Republicans Jerry Lewis and others would see the construction of such infrastructure as an economic benefit to their constituents.

The political stalling may have kept the Desert Xpress line out of the running for Federal funds this year, but according to news early this month the political stars may be realigning, although it could be a while before it can get some attention from cash-strapped DC.  In the meantime, the Export-Import Bank of China has indicated its interest in providing a revitalizing $7 billion dollar loan to the Mag-Lev project.  I'm personally not sure if any high speed rail line between Vegas and Victorville is the wisest use of funds when there are plenty of other more worthwhile transportation needs, but we certainly would not need two!  If interest (and financing) for these projects is maintained, more scrutiny will have to be paid on the designated route,  and what impact it would have on biological resources.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Anxious for a Mojave Spring

There is a lot of hype for this Spring's Mojave Desert wildflower bloom, and admittedly I feed into that hype.  Being anxious to see how it turns out but unable to fast-forward time, I decided to rewind and review past blooms, although admittedly the two photos below were taken in early January 2008, so no quite spring.

Mojave Max

With all of the East Coast-centric press reporting on Punxsutawney Phil and his weather predictions, I have to give an obligatory shout-out to Mojave Max the Desert Tortoise.  Actually, that's tortoises (plural) because there are two Mojave Max (talk about identity theft), one residing at Red Rock Canyon National Conservation area outside of Las Vegas and another in Palm Desert, CA.  I would personally dispute the Palm Desert tortoise's claim to the Mojave title since I believe the exhibit technically falls within the Colorado Desert (as does part of Joshua Tree National Park), but that would ruin it for the kids.  So let's hope that both Mojave Max in California and Nevada will enjoy a spring season with bountiful wildflowers!  You can read more on Mojave Max at the Desert Tortoise Recovery Office website.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010


A distrustful Thrasher at Teutonia Peak, Mojave National Preserve 
(although any bird watchers out there can correct me on the bird species!)

Wilderness: The Great Debate

I found reference to an interesting documentary that is scheduled to air in Utah on KUED called "Wilderness: The Great Debate" looking at the same sort of questions that are coming up in current Mojave Desert land use discussions.   The documentary examines wilderness policy in Utah and attempts to capture the views of various stakeholders, to include ORV riders, conservationists, locally elected officials and Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar.   The synopsis is available on KUED's website, but if anyone knows if it will air elsewhere please let me know.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Phantoms of Mojave Desert Transportation Projects

It's been eerily quiet on the public policy side of two major transportation projects impacting both the east and west Mojave Desert.  I was reminded about these projects when the President announced funding for high speed rail lines throughout the country.  California received nearly 2 billion dollars to begin development of a high speed rail line between San Francisco and Los Angeles.  This would suggest that State and Federal authorities have at least temporarily side-lined the "Desert Xpress", which was a planned high speed rail line from Los Angeles to Las Vegas (a multi-billion dollar project to usher vacationers to the gambling capital of the US seems out of place in today's climate!).  That said, there still seems to be some private capital behind the project, so it's likely to pop up again.  If the line follows Interstate 15 it's impact on the desert's biological resoures could be minimal, however

The second project is the Hi-Desert Corridor (E-220), a snazzy new highway linking Palmdale and Los Angeles, presumably meant to alleviate traffic through the Cajon Pass.  The project however would likely spur even more land development throughout the west Mojave Desert, since San Bernardino County is also planning economic incentives for industry and commerce along the route.  However, I have not yet tracked down any public documents regarding the status of this project.  The last notice indicates that the City of Victorville was supposed to prepare an Environmental Impact Report for the project, but this is not available online.  I'm attempting to track it down and will let you all know if I find it.

Desert Tortoise Council Symposium Soon!

The Desert Tortoise Council is organizing it's 35 Annual Meeting and Symposium in Ontario, CA from 25-28 February.  The symposium will include guest speakers from the Center for Biological Diversity, BLM, and energy interests to discuss the impacts of the renewable energy rush on the Mojave Desert.  There will also be a field trip to a Desert Tortoise critical habitat area.  You can get more information at the Desert Tortoise Council website.  Note that the symposium also includes a call for research papers and a photo contest!