Tribes and conservation groups say that stripping swathes of the Mojave desert to make way for huge solar farms will destroy desert tortoise habitat.

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Tribes and conservation groups say that stripping swathes of the Mojave desert to make way for huge solar farms will destroy desert tortoise habitat.

Interior Approves Two Ivanpah Valley Solar Projects on Chemehuevi Homelands

Two controversial solar projects in the Ivanpah Valley, a renowned desert tortoise habitat that contains traditional homelands of the Chemehuevi Indian Tribe, have been approved by the U.S. Department of the Interior.

The 300-megawatt Stateline Solar Farm Project will be built in San Bernardino County, California, on about 1,685 acres of public land that’s two miles south of the California-Nevada border, the Interior Department said in a release. This facility will be able to power 90,000 homes via photovoltaic panels, and create 400 construction jobs plus 12 permanent jobs, the department said.

Likewise, the 250-megawatt Silver State South Solar Project near Primm, Nevada on about 2,400 acres of public land will be able to power 80,000 or so homes. That will be next to the 50-megawatt Silver State North Project, an Enbridge enterprise that has been operating since 2012 and was the first solar plant on public lands to deliver power to the grid. Silver State South will also use photovoltaic panels and will generate an estimated 300 jobs during construction and 15 permanent operations jobs, the Interior Department’s media release said.

The projects, which straddle the California-Nevada line, had been under scrutiny and been met with legal action by environmental groups and the Chemehuevi Indian Tribe for their infringement on endangered desert tortoise habitat, among other concerns. In its official Biological Opinion on the effect of the solar farms, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service calculated that the projects would displace or kill up to 2,115 desert tortoises, mainly babies and eggs that could be destroyed because they were not seen, reported public television station KCET in October 2013. At the same time, the Fish and Wildlife report said that although about 2,000 desert tortoises occupy the sites, the projects would not harm the species overall, KCET said.

The Department of the Interior statement said it had addressed these concerns via project modifications overseen by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). First Solar, the company in charge of the projects, changed its designs significantly to accommodate the tortoise, Interior said, as well as to minimize and mitigate effects on that and other wildlife. The project’s footprint was reduced by more than 20 percent, and the Ivanpah Desert Wildlife Management Area will be expanded by more than 20,000 acres, among other concessions.  

Desert tortoise

Desert tortoise

Similarly, the Silver State South facility agreed to reduce its production capacity by 100 megawatts, Interior said, and to incorporate mitigation measures that include stabilizing the soil to prevent erosion and polluted runoff. The developer also must spend more than $3.6 million on desert tortoise mitigation and $3.5 million for studies intended to guide future efforts to protect the desert tortoise in the project area, the Interior statement said.

“The company must also assess the project’s potential adverse impact if archaeological properties at the site are found to be eligible for National Register of Historic Places listing,” the Interior Department statement said.

RELATED: Tribes Join Protests of Ivanpah Solar Project

Southern California Edison has agreed to purchase electricity from the projects’ output for 20 years, the Interior Department said.

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Interior Approves Two Ivanpah Valley Solar Projects on Chemehuevi Homelands

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