Thursday, July 29, 2010

Calico Solar Evidentiary Hearing Scheduled for 4 August

The California Energy Commission (CEC) announced that it will hold an evidentiary hearings for the proposed Calicor Solar power project on 4 August beginning at 12 noon.  The hearings may extend into 5 and 6 August, as well.  The hearings will be held in Barstow -- details copied at the bottom of this post below.   You can also find the details at the CEC Calico Solar site here.

As noted in previous posts on the Calico Solar power project, the impact of the project on wildlife in the Mojave Desert will be significant.  The site is home to dozens of desert tortoises, Mojave fringe-toed lizard, and foraging habitat for bighorn sheep. 

Information for the evidentiary hearings:

Wednesday, August 4, 2010, 12:00 noon, and continuing into the evening hours, if necessary.
and on
Thursday, August 5 and Friday, August 6, 2010, beginning each day at 9 a.m.

Hampton Inn & Suites Barstow
2710 Lenwood Road
Barstow, CA 92311

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Could CDPA 2010 Hitch a Ride With Another Sensible Renewable Energy Bill?

I keep coming back to the prognosis for the passage of the California Desert Protection Act of 2010 (CDPA 2010, or S.2921) because even if I am pessimistic about its chances, I know Washington is an unpredictable arena where one has to keep an eye open for opportunities.  Part of me believes CDPA 2010 is unlikely to be considered by Congress this year.  As I've noted in previous posts, Senator Feinstein's proposed CDPA 2010 is still stuck in the Senate Committee for Energy and Natural Resources, and Congress has plenty of business to consider in a relatively short amount of time, meaning that the bill faces an uphill battle.

However, there may be a fleeting window for the Senator's office to establish the two national monuments and host of other off-road recreation and wilderness designations included in CDPA 2010 by including her language in legislation that is more likely to be considered before the full Congress before the end of the year.  It appears that Congress is much more likely to consider and vote on proposed bills that are more significant on a national scale, whereas CDPA 2010 is geographically limited to California (even though the resources it would protect are a national treasure).

Instead of a stand-alone bill (as CDPA 2010 currently exists) waiting its turn in the long line of proposed bills, the Senator's office could consider combining her legislation with H.R. 5735 -- the "Clean Energy, Community Investment, and Wildlife Conservation Act"-- which is bipartisan legislation aimed at creating a pilot land leasing program for renewable energy, and using some of the profit from the leasing to fund habitat mitigation efforts.  Senator Feinstein's legislation is in the same spirit of H.R. 5735, since it attempts to address the "solar rush" on public lands, and balance the need for renewable energy with the need to preserve our natural heritage and open space.

The proposed H.R. 5735 is likely to receive broad support on a national scale, since the legislation would divide royalties from renewable energy development on public land -- giving 25% of the collected funds to the State in which the energy development occurs, 25% to the appropriate County, 15% to fund BLM administrative functions, and 35% to wildlife conservation and habitat protection.  It could also steer some of the renewable energy projects away from pristine and biologically sensitive desert habitat.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Governor Dismisses Mojave Wilderness; CDPA 2010 Left Out of Recent Committee Action

You heard it here already -- the California Desert Protection Act of 2010 (CDPA 2010, or S. 2921) was going to face a lot of hurdles this year, and its chances of making it out of the Senate Committee for Energy and Natural Resources were slim.  However, I found it frustrating to read today that the Senate Committee delivered 18 bills and may deliver another 11 before the Senate recess in August.  CDPA 2010 was not among this list of bills for delivery.  Given the broad support that CDPA 2010 receives from communities, recreation enthusiasts and even energy companies, it was still surprising that CDPA 2010 was not included on the Senate Committee's list of business before August recess.   After Congress resumes business in September, there will not be much time left to conduct legislative business, further reducing the chances that CDPA 2010 will be passed this year.

Meanwhile, the Governor of California mocked the need to protect threatened and endangered species--to include the Mohave ground squirrel--from a rush to industrialize the California desert  with energy projects.  He blamed "environmentalists" for delaying renewable energy projects, ignoring the fact that it was the private energy companies that were short-sighted enough to select sites that are biologically sensitive.  Not every solar energy project is facing opposition.  The Governor is attempting to marginalize citizens asking for common sense policy, and he is deceptively portraying the issue as black-and-white: environmentalists vs. jobs. Would the Governor blame "environmentalists" if a company's proposal to build a wind energy site in the middle of a Redwood grove were delayed?  What if a company wanted to start off-shore drilling on a coral reef?

Bulldozing thousands of acres of pristine public wilderness for private interests is a bad business decision.  There are examples of smarter business decisions, and those are exemplified by Abengoa and Beacon Solar power projects, which the companies chose to build on disturbed land of lesser ecological value.  The Governor may not be able to distinguish between a good business decision and a bad one, but lets hope more energy companies catch on to the example set by Abengoa and Beacon.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Aldo Leopold

I'm reading Mitch Tobin's Endangered: Biodiversity on the Brink, and so far I am definitely enjoying the book and learning a lot.  One quote that Tobin uses is attributed to Aldo Leopold, who made a statement that should give us pause in our feverish efforts to change and fragment our final remaining wilderness:

"The last word in ignorance is the man who says of an animal or plant: "What good is it?" If the land mechanism as a whole is good, then every part is good, whether we understand it or not.  If the biota, in the course of aeons, has built something we like but do not understand, then who but a fool would discard seemingly useless parts? To keep every cog and wheel is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering."

This quote reminded me of criticisms by proponents of increased industrialization and urbanization of open spaces in the Mojave Desert, arguing that the desert tortoise, Mohave ground squirrel, or Mojave milkweed do not deserve to be given consideration as dozens of corporations swarm to develop the Mojave into an industrial landscape.   Some might ask: What good is a Mojave fringe-toed lizard when we could bulldoze the dunes and build a transmission line?

The 'cogs' in the Mojave Desert are in peril, and as more development is done in haste, more critical pieces in this delicate ecosystem will disappear and lead to the collapse of something beautiful that we take for granted.   And then we'll be left with photographs in museums.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Beacon Solar Approved to Operate in Mojave Desert

In the California Energy Commission's (CEC) first decision among several proposed solar projects under consideration, Beacon Solar was given approval to operate on a portion of former agricultural land near California City, located in the West Mojave Desert.  The Beacon Solar proposal came under scrutiny because it will not use dry-cooling technology, which means it will use 1,400 acre-feet of water per year to cool down the fluid heated by the solar array to produce energy.  That amounts to approximately 456 million gallons of water a year in a State that is historically pushing the limits of its water supply and demand curve, and its not clear that recycled water is a condition of Beacon Solar's certification.

One of the conditions of certification upheld in the presiding member's proposed decision (subject to a 30-day comment period now) includes a number of rules governing Beacon Solar's use of water, to include mandating netting over its evaporation ponds (which can attract and poison birds) and monitoring the groundwater supply.  The CEC permits Beacon Solar to use the groundwater as long as it monitors groundwater supply, and the proposed decision suggests Beacon Solar must phase out groundwater use and switch to recycled wastewater. 

However, I do not see specific language in the water conditions (Soil & Water 1) that requires Beacon Solar to phase out ground water and begin using recycled wastewater capacity.  Although "Soil & Water 18"--another condition in the proposed decision--requires Beacon Solar to provide a copy of an executed recycled water purchase agreement,  this still does not seem to be a pre-condition to construction and operation, only requiring that if a water purchase agreement is pursued, it should be approved by the CEC.  I'll dig further into this.

If the Beacon Solar site does switch to recycled wastewater over the next five years, it could reduce its exploitation of groundwater to 153 acre feet per year instead of 1400.  

Beacon Solar should be applauded for selecting a location for its solar site that does not contain pristine Mojave Desert habitat since the site falls on fallow agricultural land, but its decision to use a thirsty cooling technology is an issue to monitor over the course of the site's operation. 

For wildlife issues, the CEC proposed decision would require Beacon Solar to purchase 115 acres of land to mitigate for the potential loss of wildlife (Desert tortoise and Mohave ground squirrel) during the course of construction.  Because Beacon Solar chose fallow agricultural land for its site, it is one of the lowest mitigation requirements seen among the current energy projects under review by the CEC. 

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Desert Tortoise Photo Exhibit

The Kelso Depot in the Mojave National Preserve is hosting a photo exhibit featuring pictures taken by high school students of desert tortoises in the Mojave.  The exhibit runs from early May until 7 August, so you still have a couple of weeks left to check it out.


Tortoises Through the Lens:  A Conservation Exhibition by Mojave Desert Students
May 2 - August 7, 2010

Kelso Depot Visitor Center, Mojave National Preserve

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

San Bernardino County Opposed to Conservation; Supports Corporations Pilfering Public Land

According to the minutes from the San Bernardino County Board of Supervisor's meeting from 13 July, the County approved a position requesting that Federal Agencies avoid purchasing private land for conservation purposes, and also requested that additional land be set aside for Off-Highway Vehicle (OHV) use.  At the end of the day, the San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors showed just how short-sighted their policy decisions are, and supported a subsidy for corporations that are swallowing up open space and desert wilderness for their own profit.

Summary:  We (the County Supervisors) support industrial scale development of pristine, public desert wilderness, but we do not want you to conserve additional land in order to off-set the damage.  We should, however, allow more OHV use, which is well known to destroy wilderness.  Net effect: Less wilderness, less wildlife, less camping, less hiking, less photography,  less beautiful vistas, less nature, less open space, less natural heritage, less America.

This Blogger's position on OHV Recreation:
I want to be clear on something-- I do not oppose OHV use on some public land.  It is a form of recreation.  That said, it is a destructive form of recreation and I don't think any OHV rider of average intelligence would argue that their form of recreation is compatible with the preservation of our natural resources.  Take a look at any photo of an area frequently used for OHV recreation, and the scars on the land stare back at you.   That damage will take generations before it is reclaimed by nature.  I do not mind that the County wants to speak up for the interest of the OHV riders.  But the County is also opposed to the purchase of private lands for conservation. 

San Bernardino County Interfering with a Free Economy
By opposing the purchase of private land for conservation purposes but supporting unrestricted energy development on public land, San Bernardino County is adding another layer of interference to a free economy.  The first layer of interference is the political pressure that approves energy development on vast tracts of public land on a scale that is not sustainable, instead of asking the energy developers to build on private land instead.  The second layer of economic interference is the government financing of these energy projects, which only encourages more industrial applications and more destruction of public land.  Another layer of interference with a free economy is the misinformation disseminated regarding "renewable energy"--bulldozing miles and miles of wilderness, and consuming millions of gallons of water to cool the solar plants is not much different than mountain-top coal mining which also pollute waterways.

CEC Attempting to Correct for Economic Interference:
Energy companies are developing public land because it is cheaper for them, and they can earn a higher profit.  When the California Energy Commission asks that the companies set aside private land for conservation, they are trying to correct for an imperfect process that brought the companies to public land in the first place (political encouragement, poor policy, and profit margins mixed together).  The American public values nature and biodiversity.  If Federal agencies and energy companies do not account for that, we are ultimately going to be left with a lot of industrial development, and no natural heritage.  Without our natural heritage, America would have more in common with countries like Pakistan or Iraq, where natural heritage was never valued, and they let private interests and poor government decisions squander public land.

San Bernardino County Adopts Short-Sighted Policy
But it appears that the San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors is okay with throwing away our natural heritage to help out corporations.  How do they support their position-- they claim that the California Energy Commission's attempts to correct for poor land management by setting aside additional conservation land will harm the economy of San Bernardino County and lower the tax base.  Has the San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors asked what the economy would look like if property values were depressed by more frequent dust storms, wildfires, depletion of groundwater, and reduced tourism?  Poor land management will lead to erosion of some desert topsoil, and more invasive plant species which are not fire resistant.  Solar plants that use water cooling will suck up millions of gallons of water a year.  And destroyed natural vistas will lead to fewer visitors.  

If you do not like the Board of Supervisors selling your natural heritage for a quick buck, you can contact them through their website.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Ridgecrest Solar Power Project Consideration Suspended for Two Years

According to a letter submitted by Solar Millennium, the company has asked the California Energy Commission (CEC) to temporarily suspend the application review of its proposed Ridgecrest Solar Power project.  As noted previously on this blog, the Ridgecrest Solar power project could fragment critical Mohave Ground Squirrel habitat and harm a healthy desert tortoise population.  

Solar Millennium intends to use the suspension period to conduct an intensive study of the Mohave Ground Squirrel--aided by a known expert on the species--to shed light on the population and behavior in the vicinity of Ridgecrest beginning in Spring 2011 and run for two years.  In its letter, Solar Millennium stated its plans to restart the application for the Ridgecrest site if the study finds that construction will not significantly impact the Mohave Ground Squirrel.   The company could use the study to find a configuration for the site (or perhaps an alternative location) that would be less likely to draw opposition from the CEC Staff, which recommended against construction on the Ridgecrest site due to the impact it would have on the Mohave Ground Squirrel, which uses the site as a wildlife corridor.

Solar Millennium will partner with AECOM and Dr. Philip Leitner--a Mohave Ground Squirrel (MGS) expert--to conduct the study.  The study will involve radio tracking, live trapping, identification of habitat features in MGS corridors, and genetic sampling to determine how the local population is related and how the corridor may impact the gene pool.  If the study is purely science-based--which Solar Millennium's outline suggests--the findings could advance our understanding of the MGS population in its northern range.  The challenge, however, would be setting up a firewall between Solar Millennium's focus on profit, and the proposed science-based endeavor to better understand and preserve this threatened species.

Mr. Leitner's  association with the study is a positive sign considering his history of studying the Mohave Ground Squirrel.  Mr. Leitner is also associated with the California State University-Stanislaus Endangered Species Recovery Program and works with the Desert Managers Group, which is also spearheading studies of the MGS' current status.

Screenshot below is the graphic presented in the CEC's draft environmental impact statement depicting MGS core population areas and corridors.

Newberry Springs Solar Proposal Draws Opposition

A proposal to construct a 3 Mega-Watt solar power station in Newberry Springs--which was conditionally approved by the San Bernardino County Planning Commission earlier this year--is drawing opposition from neighbors who contend that the Rural Living zoning of the area should preclude industrial scale solar projects.  The site, which would encompass 80 acres and would be built by Solutions for Utilities, is located among disturbed and fallow agricultural land west of the proposed Calico Solar Power project site.  The opposition to the Solutions for Utilities project brings attention to a developing angle in the "solar rush" taking place in the Mojave--pressure placed on rural communities to accept the industrial scale development that should not occur in pristine wilderness, but that would disrupt quality of life in more populated areas.

The appeal by the opponents of the site will be heard by the San Bernardino Board of Supervisors at tonight's (13 July) meeting.  The appeal could have an impact on how solar development is carried forward in the Mojave Desert (most of which falls in San Bernardino County's jurisdiction).   Several solar power projects of much larger size are being considered in more remote Mojave Desert wilderness, and opponents of those larger projects encourage solar power development in areas of less ecological value.  Areas such as Newberry Springs would typically fit the profile of sites deemed ideal by conservationists.  The Abengoa Solar and Beacon Solar power projects are examples of separate projects in the Mojave that would both be built on fallow agricultural land.

The debate will not go away after the County's decision tonight since the "gold rush" of solar projects in the Mojave is unlikely to slow over the next year.  This will lead to more proposed projects in areas like Newberry Springs, and also more remote areas.  The interests of citizens living in rural areas of the Mojave Desert--on the fringes of population centers such as the Victor Valley and Barstow--and the readiness for these areas to accept more industrial development probably will determine the political feasibility of encouraging more solar development in rural areas instead of less disturbed habitat.  It also ultimately underscores the ideal solution of "distributed energy", which would involve placing renewable energy production in the user's backyard through rooftop solar panels or backyard windmills, rather than large industrial-sized projects that destroy natural resources or place large industries in quiet rural neighborhoods.

That said, the San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors is unlikely to favor the project for the reasons of preserving other more sensitive desert lands since the County has generally shown its willingness to accept any and all damage that industrial scale energy generation brings to the Mojave.  The county has already expressed dissatisfaction with State and Federal Agency plans to set aside Mojave Desert habitat for conservation purposes, arguing that conservation efforts could "lock up" more land from development, apparently in favor of transforming most of the County's open space into an industrial free-for-all.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Mohave Ground Squirrel In Peril; Conservation Plan Lagging Behind Threats

In response to the United States Fish and Wildlife Service's (USFWS) initiation of a status review to consider listing the Mohave Ground Squirrel (MGS) under the Endangered Species Act, a representative from China Lake Naval Air Weapons Station expressed opposition to the listing of MGS.  The rational of the military was that military installations in the area support a healthy populations of the MGS and are participating in conservation measures being considered through the Desert Managers Group to preserve the species through regional management.  Unfortunately, this opposition to the listing of the MGS rings hollow, since regional efforts have been slow, and the military's efforts within DoD installations do not address the threats posed to the species on 2/3 of its range outside of military land.

Mohave Ground Squirrel Thriving on Military Bases?

Although studies submitted indicate that the Mohave Ground Squirrel does have core populations located on or near China Lake Naval Air Weapons Station and Edwards Air Force Base, the abundance on these installations does not negate the threats faced by the species beyond the perimeters of these bases.  Furthermore, biologists noted in 2008 that portions of the China Lake Naval Air Weapons Station could still use further study to determine the size and range of the MGS population there.  An Edwards Air Force Base representative claims that the base submitted additional information providing a more complete picture of the MGS studies conducted on the base in recent years, although these documents are not yet available online.

To the military's credit, it is probably one of the more responsible land manager's in the West Mojave, particularly since China Lake and Edwards AFB's activities do not involve as much ground disturbance as Fort Irwin.  The military perimeters also keep out recreational off-highway vehicle use that is damaging other MGS habitat in the West Mojave.  China Lake and Edwards AFB both claim to permit access to their grounds for biological studies,  have funded studies, and the base's are well represented on the Desert Managers Group. 

Military Installations Just One Piece of a Crumbling Puzzle

However, the military's protests to the listing of the MGS under the Endangered Species Act should be kept in perspective, since they clearly ignore the substantial and immediate threat posed to the MGS beyond the base perimeters.  The US military administers approximately 1/3 of the land in the Mohave Ground Squirrel's range, and the BLM is responsible for nearly 1/3 of the land, highlighting the importance of inter-agency cooperation and the need for outreach to private landowners.

The BLM-administered lands are currently under intense pressure by energy developers, who seek to bulldoze thousands of acres for utility-scale solar and wind energy plants that will fragment MGS populations.  Additionally, information submitted by the Western Watersheds Project highlighted that the vast majority of MGS range under BLM administration is allotted to grazing for sheep and cattle.

In addition to threats posed to the MGS on BLM lands, the State of California has been seeking to improve State Highway 58, which would lead to more traffic, and the counties of San Bernardino and Los Angeles are moving forward to construct E-220, also known as the High Desert Corridor.  This highway would cut across the MGS' southern range and lead to more urbanization and recreational use in this portion of Mojave Desert.  The Desert Xpress high speed train also plans to ultimately develop a spur connecting Victorville and Palmdale, which would cut through MGS habitat, as well.

The image above is a screenshot from the Ridgecrest Solar Power project Draft Environmental Impact Statement, and shows the MGS range outlined in black, and proposed solar and wind energy projects proposed as of March 2010.

Public-Private Partnership Slow to Address the MGS Decline

The military opponents to the Federal listing of the MGS deemed that the efforts of the Desert Manager's Group to enact a local Conservation Plan under the Group's Mohave Ground Squirrel Working Group should be sufficient.  The Desert Managers Group is composed of representatives from local government, military, Federal agencies, and private organizations with interests in California's Desert conservation.  Unfortunately, the group's development of the Conservation Plan has been slow.  Documents available on the DMG website, and even the Navy's own admission indicate the the DMG's conservation plan is only in draft stage. 

The Working Group's current focus is also on conducting more thorough research of the species and its habitat, which makes perfect sense as enhanced understanding will be critical to saving the species.   However, the MGS has been listed as a rare or threatened species under California law since 1971, and the USFWS was previously petitioned to list the species under Federal law in 1995, showing how long this species' has been on the radar of conservationists.  Yet, the Desert Managers Group still lacks a concrete plan for acquiring, managing and preserving critical habitat on BLM-administered and privately owned lands, suggesting that the Group's efforts will be outpaced by further curtailment of MGS habitat.  As of late 2009, it was estimated that the MGS had lost 20% of its range, and studies have shown a precipitous decline in the MGS population south of State Highway 58 (with the exception of a core population in Edwards Air Force Base).

As mentioned in a previous post, the Desert Managers Group has not always been able to find quick funding for its studies and projects, presenting another hurdle to the ability of local interests to reverse the species' decline without Endangered Species Act resources and urgency.   One of the objectives of the MGS Working Group is to secure and manage core MGS habitat and wildlife corridors.  As evidenced by the proposed Ridgecrest Solar Power project, the DMG has been unable to protect a potentially important MGS corridor that may soon be obstructed if the Ridegcrest project is permitted to move forward.  Additionally, no plan has yet been set forth by the group to fund and acquire conservation lands for the MGS.

Absent a current listing for the MGS under the Endangered Species Act, the Desert Managers Group is the best shot the MGS has at a coordinated land management strategy aimed at better understanding and preserving the species from rapidly encroaching development.  However, the USFWS should recognize the lack of substantial progress on this front, and both organizations should be aware that the MGS is running out of time.