Are You Kidding?: Interior Set to Approve Project Near Soda Mountain

The Department of Interior released its final environmental impact statement for Bechtel's Soda Mountain Solar project and appears to abandon previous "landscape-level" planning.  The document signals imminent approval for the nearly three square mile project that could ironically make it more difficult for desert bighorn sheep to adapt to climate change and imperil an endangered desert fish, ignoring alternative locations for the solar panels on rooftops or already-disturbed lands.

According to the environmental review, the desert habitat that will be destroyed to make way for the Soda Mountain Solar project currently hosts as many as 142 different species of native plants, 13 reptile species, and 15 mammal species, including three species of bats that forage on the site.  Fifty-one different bird species have been documented using the habitat, including burrowing owls.  Biologists found 50 recently active owl burrows on the project site.


Confidence Rests on Dangerous Assumptions

The final environmental impact statement assumes the project's impacts on wildlife will be limited, despite many unknowns about large-scale solar projects and concerns that some impacts are being underestimated.  The Department of Interior has been down this road before and was later forced to acknowledge harmful consequences that it downplayed or didn't bother to evaluate with other large-scale energy projects in the desert.  Yet, here we are again taking unnecessary risks and ignoring better alternatives.  Although the final environmental review pledges to monitor impacts, such monitoring cannot always stop impacts in time, and not all damage will be reversible.    

Bighorn Sheep

Bighorn sheep at Soda Mountain
The Soda Mountain area has been identified as the only opportunity to reestablish demographic connectivity across Interstate-15 for the desert bighorn sheep.  Thus, if Bechtel installs a field of photovoltaic panels here it will impede this opportunity to improve sheep migration north and south across a significant portion of the Mojave.  If we do not restore demographic connectivity, the genetic diversity of desert bighorn sheep will continue to decline if sheep only breed among isolated populations.  This loss of genetic diversity will challenge the species' ability to adapt to climate change.

Much of the solar project's "East Array" will be built less than a quarter mile from the slopes of the Soda Mountains and destroy key foraging habitat used by the sheep.  Bighorn sheep are sensitive to human disturbance, so an industrial-scale solar facility probably will restrict the animal's local range and also complicate efforts to lure sheep to any future wildlife crossings;  they have already shown a reluctance to approach Interstate-15.

The environmental impact statement will require the installation of guzzlers - human-installed water sources - to try to entice bighorn sheep to cross culverts underneath Interstate-15 or the existing vehicle overpass at Zzyzx Road.  If those do not result in sheep safely crossing under or over the highway, Bechtel will be required to put $250,000 toward a possible wildlife overpass just north of the solar array.  But because the solar project extends so far into sheep foraging habitat and close to the slopes of the Soda Mountains, our options for where to optimally place the wildlife overpass are constrained. 

The final EIS mentions that studies are ongoing to determine bighorn sheep crossing opportunities, so it seems bizarre that Interior is ready to approve a solar project layout without sufficient information to evaluate its impacts on bighorn sheep.  With so many sustainable alternative locations for solar panels - on rooftops, over parking lots, or on already-disturbed lands - Interior is taking an unnecessary risk approving this solar project and jeopardizing bighorn sheep habitat connectivity.

Mohave Tui Chub

The Mohave tui chub is an endangered desert fish that lives in natural springs and at Lake Tuendae in the Mojave National Preserve, just east of the solar project.  The Soda Mountain Solar project will pump 62.5 million gallons of water per year during construction, and 10.7 million gallons of water each year for for dust suppression and panel washing during operation of the completed project. Some are concerned that this groundwater pumping will take enough water from the aquifer that the Mohave tui chub habitat will dry up.  And the desert bighorn sheep will lose a critical water source, as well.
Mohave tui chub at Soda Spring

According to the Bureau of Land Management, the Mohave tui chub habitat probably gets most of its water from rainfall on the east side of the Soda Mountains, not from the same groundwater basin as the solar project.  But the National Park Service asserts, and the BLM acknowledges, that water may also permeate through the Soda Mountains from the solar project's groundwater basin and to the fish habitat.  The BLM and Bechtel are assuming a great risk, betting that pumping groundwater from the Soda Mountain Valley will not have much of an impact on the springs that provide habitat for the endangered Mohave tui chub and keep bighorn sheep alive.   If the BLM is wrong, the effects on wildlife could be harmful and fast.  Groundwater builds slowly over time, but its manifestations at the surface - at natural springs - can disappear with little warning.  Even if Bechtel ceases its pumping, it may not be able to reverse the damage.

Pollution and Water a Vicious Cycle
 
Another key concern about the project is the amount of particle pollution (PM 10 and PM 2.5) that this project will generate during construction and operation - bulldozing desert habitat removes topsoil and increases windblown dust.  Although solar projects do not emit the same amount or type of pollution that fossil fuel projects do, they can still have a harmful impact on health and regional visibility.  The best way to avoid this problem is to put solar panels on rooftops, and to avoid adding to the problem you can build on already-disturbed lands.   Instead, Bechtel will add to the problem.  And in order to suppress this dust, Bechtel will have to pump millions of gallons of groundwater to spray the project site and hold down dust pollution.  However, other solar projects that have used groundwater to control pollution still emit a great deal of dust, as shown below.  Once again, policies that encourage solar panels on rooftops or over parking lots would allow us to generate clean energy without these environmental costs.

Dust kicked up at the Ivanpah Solar project after BrightSource mowed down desert vegetation there. Dust suppression uses a lot of water, and is not always effective. Photo by Basin and Range Watch.


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