Silurian Valley Spared by BLM

If you have ever been to the Silurian Valley, you know it is one of those grand places that inspires and beckons you to pull over, get out of your car, and hike.  After driving on Interstate 15 from Barstow, the Silurian Valley is a strong dose of tranquility, providing relief from the traffic, billboards and franchise restaurants of our Anthropocentric world and what Aldo Leopold called the "epidemic of geometry."  As you drive up the two-lane Death Valley Road,  you leave behind the sight of the small highway outpost of Baker and you are swallowed by the immensity of the Silurian Valley. It is just you and the narrow road dividing thousands of acres of wilderness on either side.  This week, Jim Kenna, the State Director for the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) in California, spared this place for future generations to experience when he rejected plans by Spain-based Iberdrola to build the Aurora Solar project.

The Silurian Valley, with the Avawatz Mountains far in the distance.  Even further in the background is the southern portion of Death Valley National Park.
Kenna's decision represents a significant milestone under the Department of Interior's Solar Energy Development policy, which seeks to encourage industrial-scale solar energy development in identified "Solar Energy Zones" (SEZ) while applying a more rigorous criteria against projects proposed outside of those zones in areas called "variance" lands.  Iberdrola's Aurora Solar project is the first project to be considered under this variance process in California. 

Rigorous Criteria

The BLM evaluated Iberdrola's proposal against 24 different factors, ranging from the availability of space in existing solar energy zones, impacts on sensitive wildlife and cultural resources.  The project was proposed for a location well over 100 miles away from the nearest SEZ.  The BLM's decision noted that the Riverside East and Chocolate Mountain SEZs both have thousands of acres of land available for new projects, so the destruction of the Silurian Valley was unnecessary.

Native Americans, explorers and traders traversed the Silurian Valley on the Old Spanish Trail that connected Sante Fe, New Mexico with Los Angeles.  The trail crossed the southwestern desert with short distances between natural sources of water - springs still used by wildlife today. Visitors to the Silurian Valley can experience a landscape that still looks much like the way it did to travelers nearly 200 years ago.  There are not that many places in the lower 48 United States where our natural heritage remains so intact; an industrial-scale facility of any kind in the Silurian Valley would dominate the viewshed and undermine the cultural and scenic value of the area.  The BLM's decision notes that the cultural resources of the Silurian Valley weighed heavily in the BLM's rejection of Iberdrola's variance application. 

The BLM also looks at a project's ability to use existing infrastructure when proposing to build a facility outside of a SEZ.  The BLM found that Iberdrola's proposed solar project would require over 40 miles  of new access roads.  And although Iberdrola said it planned to connect its solar project to a nearby LADWP transmission line, it had not yet secured an agreement from LADWP to do so.  If LADWP rejected its interconnection request, Iberdrola's project would require many miles of new transmission lines through the desert to reach other transmission facilities near Primm, Nevada.

The BLM's review of the project application found conflicting views regarding the value of wildlife habitat in the Silurian Valley.  While a Western Governors Council habitat evaluation tool noted only moderate values for wildlife in the Silurian Valley, this tool probably lacks the local detail necessary to make site-specific decisions.  In a letter to the BLM regarding the Silurian Valley, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) noted the importance of the area's intact desert habitat as a key east/west linkage for the desert tortoise.  The FWS also noted that a solar project could become a trap for migratory birds.  Nearby dry lake beds fill up with water after rains, and attract a variety of bird species; these birds could easily mistake a shimmering solar plant for a body of water.

What's Next?

The next major policy decision for the Silurian Valley will be whether or not to keep the Special Analysis Area (SAA) that the draft Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan (DRECP) included in the area.  The fate of the Special Analysis Areas will be decided before the DRECP is finalized - they will either become development focus areas or set aside for conservation.  The BLM's decision to reject Iberdrola's solar application in the Silurian Valley suggests that the Special Analysis Area there stands a better chance of becoming part of the DRECP's conservation lands, but we will only know when the BLM announces its decisions on the Special Analysis Areas.

In the meantime, Iberdrola has 30 days to appeal the BLM's decision to reject the Aurora Solar project, but this is likely to be a steep battle.  Even if the Department of Interior asked the BLM to take another look at its decision,  grassroots and national-level environmental organizations have spoken out against the project.  If BLM ultimately allows the project to go through the full environmental review process, it is likely to be contentious and costly for Iberdrola.


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