National Park Service Tenders Objection To Soda Dry Lake Solar Project

(March 26) The National Park Service has emerged as the earliest strong opponent of the Bechtel Corporation’s revamped plan for a solar power project south of Baker.
In this way, one branch of the federal government is pitted against another branch of the federal government over whether the project should be given go-ahead.
The federal Bureau of Land Management owns the property where the project is to be constructed and has signed off on leasing the property to Bechtel for the stated purpose and appears to be inclined to grant Bechtel the right-of-way required to proceed with and complete the project.
Previously, Bechtel wanted to cover much of 14.9 square miles roughly six miles south of Baker and near the northwest corner of  the Mojave National Preserve with solar panels. Bechtel redrafted that plan after concerns were aired about the impact the project would have on wildlife and it was pointed out that the panels would blanket the landscape and be placed into natural washes and arroyos.
The corporation has since relented and is now intent on proceeding with a project with a 6.5-square mile footprint within which 3.3 square miles will be covered with solar panels.  Those panels will generate, Bechtel says, 358 megawatts, or enough electricity for 170,000 homes.
The property in question would be utilized on a long term lease from the Bureau of Land Management. It lies atop a dry lake, known as Soda Lake, which lies outside the preserve. Visually, the bright white dry lake can be distinguished from the surrounding desert. It is ringed by springs, seeps and ponds, which support a variety of area wildlife.
The Bureau of Land Management is conducting research and gathering input to assist with the drafting of an environmental impact analysis for the project. In response , Mojave National Preserve Superintendent Stephanie Dubois on March 3 submitted an eight-page missive to the BLM, saying,  “We urge the BLM to reconsider the potential for this project to be sited on other BLM lands, private lands, or other degraded lands where renewable energy projects would present fewer adverse impacts to natural and cultural resources.”
Dubois maintains the project conflicts with the California Desert Protection Act of 1994, which established the Mojave National Preserve.
Environmental groups are opposed to the project, arguing it will impact the area adversely, interrupt migration paths for desert species and damage species habitat, most notably that of the desert tortoise. Moreover, the project’s draw on desert water is an issue for environmentalists.  Bechtel predicts it will have a need for roughly 192 acre-feet of water yearly for the three years construction of the project will be ongoing and that it subsequently will require 46acre-feet of water per year for operations.
At issue in this regard is the impact on Bighorn sheep and other roaming and nocturnal animals that depend upon  the area’s springs, as well as the potential harm that would inflict on the Mohave tui chub, a fish  living in the desert now categorized as endangered.
The federal government, through BLM environmental reviews, has given clearance for six commercial solar projects in the Mojave Desert, despite the opposition of environmental groups, which cited habitat destruction and other ecological issues. Environmentalists see this project as a test case because it is planned in an area that is well beyond the solar energy project zone established by the Department of Interior established further south along Interstate 10 in 2012.
The BLM has previously rejected expressed concerns that the well pumping Bechtel proposes to engage in at the project site will adversely impact the springs that run along Zzyzx Road in the Mojave National Preserve or MC Spring, which feeds a pond where most of the remaining  Mohave tui chub are known to exist.
Bechtel has sought to minimize or allay concerns that the project, which would involve solar panels on both sides of Interstate 15, will impact the scenic vista from the Mojave National Preserve.
Bechtel maintains the Soda Mountains site is suitable for the project and that the company will incorporate protection for wildlife, fencing off the rows where the panels will be placed into the ground but allowing sufficient space between the fenced rows so that wild life can transit the area.
Dubois’ wrote that the BLM’s consideration of the project proposal should prioritize issues so that its ultimate decision “will put natural resources first and solar development second.” She said alternatives and options to the design for the project Bechtel is proposing is “lacking in the current document.”

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