Wednesday, July 2, 2014

First Solar Begins Ecosystem Destruction in Ivanpah

First Solar has begun construction on the 2.6 square mile Stateline Solar project - one of the company's two additional solar projects in the Ivanpah Valley - after a judge turned down a request for an injunction by the Defenders of Wildlife.   First Solar is also expected to begin bulldozing desert habitat for the Silver State South project, which will destroy over 3.7 square miles of tortoise habitat on the Nevada side of the Ivanpah Valley.  Both projects will destroy some of the best quality desert tortoise habitat in the Mojave Desert and, more insidiously, likely sever a habitat corridor linking separate populations of the tortoise.
A tractor begins clearing intact desert habitat for First Solar's Stateline project in the Ivanpah Valley.  In the initial phase of construction, the project has already displaced at least 16 desert tortoises, including one that was pushed out of its burrow by a bulldozer and happened to survive.  Photo from construction monitoring reports.
Tortoises Lose Key Habitat

According to construction monitoring reports,  First Solar has already translocated at least 16 tortoises - 8 adults and 8 juveniles - from the first phase of construction, which may be an area of approximately 500-700 acres (the final environmental impact statement indicated "zone 1" of construction would be 509 acres, although the current Notice to Proceed covers 693 acres).   Among the 16 tortoises,  one happened to survive being "unearthed" by a bulldozer, and only noticed by a monitor after the tractor had passed.  The incident is a testament to the likelihood that some tortoises - especially juveniles - are missed by pre-construction surveys and will be killed during the course of construction.

The first phase appears to be an area of desert habitat closer to the Ivanpah Dry Lake bed, which would typically support fewer tortoises compared to the other portions of the Stateline Solar site, so we may see a higher density of tortoises displaced by the next phases of construction.  According to the Final Environmental Impact Statement for the Stateline project, the Fish and Wildlife Service estimates as many as 37 adult tortoises may be impacted by the project, although many more juveniles are expected to be displaced or killed.

The Fish and Wildlife Service estimate may not count tortoises that are "passively relocated" during construction.  In other words, if a tortoise is found walking into the construction area, it will simply be placed outside of the new tortoise fence that excludes the animals from the habitat that is now being destroyed.  This can lead some tortoises to pace along the fence and die of heat stress, or place them at higher risk of predation if they no longer have access to a burrow on the other side of the fence.   At least one tortoise has been found pacing the new tortoise fence at Stateline.
This map from the Fish and Wildlife Service shows how the Primm area of the Ivanpah Valley is a natural bottleneck in tortoise habitat connecting two populations (from north to south).  The construction of the Stateline and Silver State South solar projects (brown footprints in the map) will essentially cut off this connectivity and potentially rob the species of genetic exchange necessary to maintain resilience.
As construction of the Stateline Solar project displaces or kills tortoises on site, arguably the worst impact will evolve over time as tortoises lose a key wildlife corridor that currently allows genetic exchange across populations of the species.  The Stateline and Silver State South projects are being built in a natural bottleneck in the Ivanpah Valley at the California and Nevada border.  Suitable tortoise habitat was already limited at the narrowest point near Primm, Nevada.  After First Solar's projects are built, the corridor will not support a full desert tortoise home range through the length of the bottleneck, contrary to best management practices and guidelines set forth in the Desert Tortoise Recovery Plan and discussed in the Bureau of Land Management's Solar Energy Development Policy.   The map above shows how the two First Solar projects limit habitat connectivity to a narrow sliver just east of the Silver State project (shown in light green). 

A view of the desert that will be destroyed by First Solar for the Stateline Solar project, as photographed from Metamorphic Hill.
Intricate Web of Wildlife Being Undone

Beyond tortoises, the construction activity has begun to destroy and displace other wildlife dependent upon, and critical to the vitality of this corner of the desert.  Construction activity likely forced at least one kit fox den to be abandoned, and another active kit fox den with pups is likely to be disturbed in a future phase of construction.   A burrow is now being monitored after crews discovered recent sign of use by western burrowing owls; no matter where the owls are now, there will not have a burrow to return to next year.   The first phase of construction is also impacting an area with the highest density of pink funnel lily, a rare desert wildflower.

Construction crews also found a dead Wilson's warbler and black-throated sparrow.  What is not clear is how they were killed - of natural causes, by construction activities, or by the nearby BrightSource Ivanpah Solar project.  If the latter, this may argue for extending the avian and bat mortality surveys beyond the perimeter of the Ivanpah Solar project. 

The rich diversity of wildlife being displaced or killed in the Ivanpah Valley is a stark counterpoint to the arguments put forward by industry that the desert is a wasteland, and a testament to the qualities that make the desert worth protecting.

1 comment:

  1. I'm sick to my stomach. It's time we rise to stop the death of our desert. I'm ready.

    ReplyDelete