May 29, 2009 Features & Images » Feature Story

High Noon 

As the climate warms, environmentalists square off over Big Solar’s claim to the Mojave Desert

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It is being designed by engineers who appear to be learning about the desert ecosystem as they go: The original plan for the Ivanpah plant had no proposal for managing stormwater, as if no one had considered that rain falls in the desert.

Tom Hurshman, the project manager at the BLM, says he's "gone back and forth with hydrologists and civil engineers working on the project" to get them to address the stormwater issue; he's also "questioning some of the assumptions they put into their design.

"We're looking at pretty much an exclusive use of public lands here," Hurshman says. "The scope of these projects is far larger than anything the BLM and the Energy commission have ever seen before. It's taking us a while just to figure out what questions we need to ask."

There may be worse places to locate a solar plant than the Ivanpah Valley, including another tract BrightSource picked out in the Sleeping Beauty Mountains, a wilderness that serves as a corridor for wildlife traveling between Joshua Tree and the Mojave National Preserve. That project is among more than a dozen proposed on a 600,000-acre parcel purchased by The Wildlands Conservancy in 1999 and donated to the federal government. In early March, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., announced that she plans to introduce legislation putting those acres -- called the Catellus lands after the railroad-turned-real-estate company that once owned them -- off-limits to wind, transmission and solar projects.

Right now, however, Ivanpah matters more than all those projects, because it's the first large-scale solar plant on public land to move into the concurrent permitting process with the BLM and the California Energy Commission in 16 years. It is, says G. Sid Silliman, the president of the Sierra Club's Mojave-adjacent San Gorgonio Chapter, "the model for all future projects. We want to make sure it gets done right." If the BLM isn't sure about the questions, many national environmental organizations are pounding on the door with questions of their own.

For instance, what does it mean to describe land as "disturbed"? The federal government has long granted grazing rights to the Ivanpah parcel, but that didn't prevent it from becoming a de facto refuge for the threatened desert tortoise, 30 of which were found during project surveys. Each of those tortoises will need to be relocated before the project advances, a process that will likely result in some of them dying. Consequently, the Sierra Club, Defenders of Wildlife, the National Parks Conservation Association and several other groups consider the land high-value habitat, and have asked the state Energy Commission to require that BrightSource compensate for it by purchasing five times as much similar land for conservation. But no environmental organization with a significant number of members east of the Mississippi River opposes Ivanpah altogether.

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