Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Feds Signal Approval for Project Despite Incomplete Research

The Department of Interior has placed First Solar’s Silver State South solar project on the notorious “fast track” list, which means senior political appointees in Washington probably expect to approve the project within the next year, rushing ahead of studies still in progress to understand how the project will impact desert tortoise habitat connectivity.  According to an initial report obtained by Basin and Range Watch, biologists were slated to begin a full year of data collection this year aimed at understanding whether or not First Solar's project will cut off genetic connectivity between different tortoise populations by destroying a narrow slice of habitat linking two regions of the Mojave Desert.   The researchers are studying nearby swaths of rougher and higher elevation desert terrain for their potential to provide connectivity from the Ivanpah Valley to other regions of the desert -- if they do not serve as a genetic linkage, the First Solar project could deliver a significant blow to the recovery of the imperiled desert tortoise.
Maintaining connectivity between large core habitat areas is important for preserving gene flow among individuals of a population. Gene flow promotes higher genetic variability, or heterozygosity, which improves overall fitness of a species. – Biological Resources Technical Report for the Silver State South Solar project.
Initial surveys of the proposed Silver State South project site have already revealed a healthy tortoise population – with anywhere from 3 to 27 tortoises per square mile. The local tortoise population apparently experienced a decline four years ago, possibly due to a severe drought, but surveys in 2011 showed that 7% of the tortoises encountered on the project site were juveniles, a sign that the local population may be on the rebound.

[Click on image to expand] This Google Earth image shows First Solar's Silver State Right of Way in purple, covering a patch of suitable tortoise habitat that links two larger populations of the species.  The two red boxes are the approximate areas being studied to determine whether they also provide a genetic linkage for the species, even though they consist of rougher and higher elevation terrain.
The tortoise is one part of a vibrant desert ecosystem that would be bulldozed to make way for photovoltaic solar panels – the same technology that can be placed more sustainably on rooftops or over parking lots. If approved, the Silver State South project would destroy habitat for over 150 plant, 36 bird, and 12 reptile species, some of them considered imperiled by both Nevada and Federal wildlife officials.

The year-long tortoise habitat connectivity study probably started in the spring of 2012, suggesting the research may not be complete before Interior releases the “fast track” environmental impact statement for the project later this year. The draft document almost certainly will select a “preferred alternative” without waiting for the study’s crucial findings, and a final decision could be issued before the research is even complete, assuming the research requires a full year of data collection as noted in the initial biological report.
Ecologically intact desert habitat where First Solar proposes building its large Silver State South solar project, threatening to displace or kill dozens of desert tortoises. Beyond the Lucy Gray mountains in the distance lies another area of desert habitat that researchers are studying to determine whether or not it supports genetic connectivity for the desert tortoise. If it does not, then the First Solar project could deliver a significant setback to the recovery of the threatened desert tortoise.
Leaping before looking has been standard practice under Secretary of Interior Ken Salazar, who signed off on BrightSource Energy’s Ivanpah Solar project in 2010 despite concerns that the tortoise estimates were too low. Those concerns turned out to be well-founded, and the project was temporarily halted after Interior realized the number of tortoises displaced or killed by the project would exceed initial estimates by well over 100. Another “fast track” project known as Imperial Valley Solar was halted after a judge found that the Department of Interior did not adequately consult with Native American tribes, which stood to lose sacred sites and burial grounds to the project.   And in Riverside County, the Genesis Solar power project likely caused an outbreak of deadly canine distemper among desert kit fox, and also threatens to destroy Native American burial grounds that were not identified during the rushed environmental review.

First Solar’s proposed Silver State South solar project is the second phase of a smaller solar facility- Silver State North - that is already in operation in the Ivanpah Valley. That smaller project and BrightSource Energy’s notorious Ivanpah Solar project have already destroyed just under 6 square miles of ecologically intact desert habitat. If approved, First Solar’s Silver State South project could push that number to over 10 square miles, wreaking havoc on a remote swath of desert.  The Silver State South project footprints under consideration in the Biological Resources Technical Report range  from 4 to 6 square miles in size, but the BLM website currently lists the size as 2.2 square miles.

Basin and Range Watch submitted a proposal to classify the Ivanpah Valley as an Area of Critical Environmental Concern.   Ironically, the Department of Interior also acknowledged the conservation value of the Ivanpah Valley when it decided in its Solar Energy Development Program that no further industrial-scale energy development should be permitted in the area to preserve its ecological importance, and the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan also labels the Ivanpah Valley as a proposed conservation area.  Both of these plans, however, make exceptions for industry proposals on the books before late 2011, which has allowed First Solar to move forward with its Silver State South and Stateline solar projects.

Embedded below is a PDF copy of the list of plant and animal species observed in the desert where First Solar plans to build the Silver State South project. The list is a result of surveys conducted by Ironwood Consulting as part of the Biological Technical Resources Report.
Silver State South Species List

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