Reading the Desert Harvest draft EIS — and green schools

The problem with the Bureau of Land Management’s environmental impact statements for large-scale solar projects is their length. The recently released draft EIS for enXco’s 150-megawatt Desert Harvest solar project near Desert Center is a case in point. I don’t have an exact page count yet, but a quick eyeballing puts it well over 1,000. Chapter 4, the key Environmental Consequences section is 615 pages in and of itself.

So, I have started chipping away at the report’s most important sections so you won’t have to. The goal is to have a reasonable understanding of what the main issues surrounding the photovoltaic project are by May 14, when the BLM will hold two public meetings, one in Desert Center and one in Joshua Tree, to gather public comment on the draft.

Let’s begin at the beginning with the relatively compact Executive Summary — an easy 9 pages.

The main thing you need to know here is that the BLM has come up with seven alternative scenarios for the project – ranging from no project at all to three different ways to cut its size down from 1,208 acres to either 1,161 acres or 1,044 acres.

The alternative the agency likes best so far is Alternative 7, which reduces the footprint down to 1,044 acres, specifically taking out a 9-acre area that contains crucifixion thorn, a “sensitive” plant. However it does leave in 47 acres which are part of an official wildlife habitat management area.

Alt 7 also provides for much higher racking for the panels — 15 feet versus the 6-foot-tall racking systems used in all the other alternatives.  It is not well explained here, but other alternatives that reduce the project footprint also reduce the amount of power it will produce by between 5 megawatts and 15 megawatts.

Alt 7 would keep it at 150 megawatts.

The Executive Summary also identifies seven unavoidable adverse impacts of the project, which range from air quality – air pollution during construction – to permanent loss of plant and animal habitat to a dramatic change in the visual landscape.

“The project would create impacts from the conversion of natural desert landscape to landscape dominated by industrial character. Long-term scarring would follow project decommissioning. The project would have strong visual contrast with the surrounding landscape and would be visible from proximate wilderness areas and scenic vistas.”

The report also looks at the cumulative impact of land use conversion along Interstate 10, slipping in a key figure. Desert Harvest is part of a total land use conversion that will eventually encompass 52,000 acres, or 2.5 percent of the land, along the I-10 corridor.

That figure is more than a third of the 147,910 acres of the federally designated Riverside East solar zone, and the report notes, there are no mitigation measures to reduce the visual impact.

On the environmental side, the project would add to the cumulative loss of habitat and migration corridors for sensitive and endangered species, even with mitigation measure.

Between now and final approval, all these issues will have to be resolved, and Riverside County, which is the lead jurisdiction on state permitting for the project – that is making sure it meets California’s rigorous Environmental Quality Act, or CEQA — will have to adopt a “Statement of Overriding Considerations” that will allow the project to go forward despite significant unavoidable impacts.

So, that’s the overview. Stay tuned as I continue to read and fill in the details.

And, before I end here, the Princeton Review, in partnership with the U.S. Green Building Council, has released its Guide to Green Colleges, which this year contains 322 listings on U.S. and Canadian campuses that “demonstrate a strong commitment to sustainability in their academic offerings, campus infrastructure, activities, and career preparation.”

The link to the online guide is http://www.princetonreview.com/green-guide.aspx

California is well represented, as might be expected, and yes, UC Riverside is on the list.

My various alma maters are also on the list — thank goodness – Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass., where I got my B.A., and the University of Maryland’s College Park campus, where I got my master’s of journalism degree.