The Future of Zzyzx: Solar Project or Wildlife?

Here we go again.  Do we allow Bechtel to destroy 3.8 square miles of desert habitat, or keep the wildlands intact to preserve a potential wildlife corridor?  Bechtel's proposed 350 megawatt Soda Mountain Solar project could dry up habitat for an endangered desert fish, and foreclose an opportunity to restore bighorn sheep habitat connectivity.  The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) published a draft environmental impact statement that signals likely approval for the Soda Mountain  project, although environmental groups, former National Park superintendents, and other citizens are expressing concern regarding the BLM's environmental review.  Prospects for wildlife are dim, however;  BLM also ignored wildlife concerns and environmental group protests when they approved the Stateline and Silver State South Solar projects in the Ivanpah Valley, a critical desert tortoise habitat linkage.  A judge denied a preliminary request from Defenders of Wildlife to stop the Ivanpah projects in April.

This photo shows the proposed site of the eastern array of Bechtel's Soda Mountain Solar project. The Mojave National Preserve boundary is on the peaks of the mountains in the distance.  Some biologists assess that a wildlife overpass across Interstate 15 (to the left of this photo, not shown), which currently acts as a significant barrier to wildlife populations.
The draft environmental impact statement suggests the Soda Mountain Solar project would not imperil bighorn sheep or other wildlife, but underplays the importance of the area to many species. Biologists believe that instead of a solar project, the location would be ideal for an overpass that would connect bighorn sheep populations across Interstate-15.  Arizona installed a wildlife overpass that has successfully supported bighorn sheep connectivity (check out the video, here) across a separate highway (pretty sad when Arizona does more to support wildlife than California...).  In addition to bighorn sheep, the site also hosts a robust population of burrowing owls that feast on small rodents and insects.  Mexican free-tailed bats, red-tailed hawks, and golden eagles are also active in the area.

This map from the BLM's draft environmental impact statement shows the proposed Soda Mountain Solar project that BLM currently recommends approving.  Bechtel does not yet have a power purchase for the project, which would be built far outside of BLM's "solar energy zones."
If the solar project is built, Bechtel would pump millions of gallons of water for construction and operation of the solar project, jeopardizing groundwater supplies and possibly drying natural springs that currently sustain a healthy population of bighorn sheep and other wildlife.  The natural springs at Zzyzx are just across the mountains from the proposed site of the Soda Mountain Solar project.  Although some of the springs may be getting water from the Mojave River, others are likely charged by groundwater seeping through rock from the same basin that would be pumped to clean solar panels at the Soda Mountain Solar project.  MC Spring is one of the water sources at Zzyzx that likely gets its water from the same basin as the proposed solar project.  In addition to supporting bighorn sheep, MC Spring also provides habitat for the endangered Mohave tui chub.  Scientists have expressed concern that even if the solar project only lowers groundwater levels by a small amount, that will be enough to dry up the very tenuous water flow to these vital springs at Zzyzx.

A Mohave tui chub at a spring near Zyzzx.  This fish only exists at a handful of places in the Mojave Desert. Bechtel could jeopardize one of the last remaining refuges for this species.
At the end of the day, Bechtel's proposed Soda Mountain Solar project exposes the same injustice and insanity we see in other desert solar projects - the unnecessary destruction of important and beautiful desert wildlands when already-disturbed lands and rooftops prove to be equally capable of hosting solar panels and generating clean energy.  Just this month, rooftop solar leasing company Solar City estimated that it will install 858 megawatts of solar panels in our cities in 2014.  Separately, MGM announced plans to install enough solar panels on a portion of its rooftops in Las Vegas to power nearly 1,300 homes.  Imagine if we tapped the rest of Las Vegas' rooftops for clean energy instead of spoiling wildlife's graceful but tenuous grasp of life in the desert.

These bighorn sheep were part of a group of six that had just finished drinking at MC Spring at Zzyzx.  If BLM allows Bechtel to build its solar project, these sheep may lose an important water source.




Comments

  1. Good job on your report. I put one up against the Soda Mountain project as well, at Nature Commission. BLM is reviewing the application and I plan to visit them.

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