Silurian Valley energy proposal tests land boundaries

Julie Cart  Los Angeles Times  8 Nov 2014

The Bureau of Land Management has called the Silurian Valley an "undisturbed, irreplaceable, historic scenic landscape." But now the federal agency is considering a proposal for two solar facilities amid the oasis. (Gina Ferazzi)
The Bureau of Land Management has called the Silurian Valley an “undisturbed, irreplaceable, historic scenic landscape.” But now the federal agency is considering a proposal for two solar facilities amid the oasis. (Gina Ferazzi)

 one of the hottest, driest places on Earth, velvety sand dunes surround dry lake beds that, with luck, fill with spring rains. Hidden waterways attract a profusion of wildlife and birds; submerged desert rivers periodically erupt in a riot of green.

The federal Bureau of Land Management describes the Silurian Valley as an “undisturbed, irreplaceable, historic scenic landscape.”

Now, a Spanish energy firm is proposing a wind and solar project that would cover 24 square miles of the Mojave Desert oasis.

Iberdrola Renewables wants to build a 200-megawatt wind farm that would sprout as many as 133 turbines reaching heights of 480 feet. Next door would be a 200-megawatt solar facility with 400 pairs of photovoltaic panels. The industrial facility would operate around the clock and be visible from nearly every point of the valley.

If approved, the project would be the first major exception to the BLM’s strategy of guided development across more than 22 million acres of California desert.

The BLM’s approach aims to encourage development in less-sensitive parts of the Mojave. But the agency allows developers such as Iberdrola to apply for variances — critics call them loopholes — that let energy prospectors plant their flags just about anywhere in the California desert if they successfully clear hurdles designed to discourage building in environmentally fragile areas.

Iberdrola’s experience will help developers determine whether the difficult process is worth their time and money. For environmentalists, it will be a test of the government’s commitment to protect sensitive areas of the desert.

In its application, Iberdrola said the plants would create 300 construction jobs and about a dozen full-time positions once the facilities are completed. It would require building 45 miles of new roads, a new power substation and 11 miles of transmission lines to connect the site to the power grid. The two plants would generate about 400 megawatts of power.

There has been wide position to the project, which sits astride the Old Spanish Trail, a historic trade route managed by the National Park Service.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and California’s Department of Fish and Wildlife have criticized its proposed location: a valley that serves as a crossroads for three major wildlife corridors and an important avian flyway. They warned that the long-standing migration corridors would be disrupted and wildlife would be injured or killed in the wind project’s turbines or the solar project’s superheated panels.

The park service has said the visual impact would be “significant, irreversible and likely unmitigatable.”

This lonely place is a tourist mecca too. The valley’s volcanic mesas and creosote forests are bisected by Highway 127, a two-lane black ribbon that connects three jewels of Southern California: Joshua Tree National Park, the Mojave National Preserve and Death Valley National Park.

Mark Butler, who retired this year as superintendent at Joshua Tree, said energy developments in the desert must be smartly placed to protect sensitive ecosystems.

“I believe it would be a mistake to place this in the Silurian Valley,” he said. “We need renewable energy — it’s just about where it is and how we go about it.”

Conservation groups, which have opposed variance exceptions, say the Silurian Valley is a poor testing ground for the process.

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