By Mark Waite
TECOPA, Calif. — When President Obama signed the Omnibus Public Lands Management Act of 2009, it included the designation of 20 miles of the Amargosa River from just north of the Tecopa Road to Dumont Dunes as a wild and scenic river.
The federal designation was a priority since the founding of the Amargosa Conservancy in 2005, though founding member Susan Sorrells said at the time it wouldn’t affect economic development from solar projects in Amargosa Valley.
But the federal designation could come back to bite the permitting process for the BrightSource Energy Hidden Hills solar project on the Tecopa Road, which would use 170,000 heliostats, to focus solar power on a 750-foot tower. It will generate a combined 500 megawatts of power.
Nevada District 36 Assemblyman Ed Goedhart, R-Amargosa Valley, predicted a ripple effect of the environmental regulations on users of public and private land when the Wild and Scenic River designation passed. He compared it to the buffer area from Death Valley National Park and Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge.
Laura Crane from the Nature Conservancy, in her comments at a public hearing before the California Energy Commission at a public hearing in Tecopa, Calif. Nov. 3 on the BrightSource Energy project, said when Congress added the 20-mile stretch of the Amargosa River to the National Wild and Scenic River System it protected the existing river flow and quality. The law requires the U.S. Bureau of Land Management to study water flow into those rivers.
In transcripts from the hearing published recently, Crane said the Nature Conservancy is very supportive of renewable energy but has problems with the siting of this project. She said the Nature Conservancy has invested significant resources in the Amargosa River region since the 1980s and remains active in protecting the rich, ecological resources there.
“In fact when The Nature Conservancy evaluated areas of importance in California from an ecological perspective the Amargosa region was raised as not just an area that was important for California but was of global significance and the reason why is because of the water in the desert. So the plants and animals that we have here, many of them are unique to this area and exist nowhere else on earth and they are dependent on water,” Crane said.
The Amargosa River flows above and below ground, beginning north of Beatty and extending down into California. It flows through scenic Amargosa Canyon just south of Tecopa.
In her testimony Crane pointed out many of the wetlands in the area are wholly dependent on groundwater.
“The Nature Conservancy supports the Council on Environmental Quality’s approach to mitigation, which is first to avoid impacts whenever possible. In the case of groundwater pumping, certainly our preference would be to avoid additional pumping in this area. But when it cannot be avoided, then the next step is to minimize water use,” she said.
Crane suggested BrightSource Energy acquire other water rights, stating there will still be impacts from dry cooling.
Mike Monasmith, project manager for the California Energy Commission, said the 140 acre feet of water used on the project is not a lot compared to some of the projects licensed by the CEC in the past, but given the nature of the desert and a concern by area people who own wells, it is an issue his agency will be concerned about.
Brian Brown, a founder of the Amargosa Conservancy, said their principal concern about the Hidden Hills project is the groundwater pumping. He said the site is close to the small community of Charleston View, which is in the Amargosa River watershed and the Death Valley regional flood system.
The Amargosa River and its springs and stream tributaries are dependent on groundwater, Brown said, which flows from northeast to southwest from Nevada to California.
Brown added the scale of the hydrology models for the Death Valley aquifer are very large and the underlying geology and hydrology of the area is not well understood.
“The Pahrump Valley Basin, from which Hidden Hills facilities will be withdrawing water, is mostly located in Nevada and water rights in that basin, according to the Nevada State Engineer, are significantly overappropriated and these rights exceed the sustainable withdrawal level by a large margin,” Brown told the commission.
Brown said the short term groundwater modeling BrightSource submitted isn’t adequate. He said the effects of groundwater pumping can take a long time to infiltrate the aquifer and once detected it’s too late to remedy the situation.
Brown said the CEC must acquire additional data and do careful monitoring, modeling and mitigation to avoid long term risk to the Amargosa River, of which sections were recently designated a wild and scenic river.
Brown wanted to know if BrightSource Energy got a U.S. Department of Energy loan guarantee for the Hidden Hills project, like in Ivanpah. Project manager Clay Jensen said they didn’t, but he added the company keeps its financing for the project confidential.
Steve McNeal, owner of the Hot Springs Resort in Tecopa, wanted to know how many gallons would be used each day. Jensen said the project would use 125,000 gallons per day.
Al Balloqui, Pahrump town economic development director, said if the property was in Nevada and was divided up into 20-acre home sites, 160 homes, they would be able to use a combined 320 acre feet of water. Balloqui said a project like this could encourage utilities like Southern California Edison or Valley Electric Association to bring more electrical power into the area.
“I’ve been doing economic development for the town of Pahrump for almost six years now and every night as I lay me down to sleep I pray that a gas line may be creeping in to weep,” Balloqui said. “I’m looking for heavy capital improvements that will bring the jobs to sustain itself and increase my property tax along with everything else and gas is one of the things.”
Nye County Commissioner Butch Borasky testified water mitigation can be easily done for 140 acre feet.
“My biggest concern is jobs and if we don’t start getting some jobs for the people that live within 100 miles of here there isn’t going to be anybody here to support anything and that’s the biggest issue,” Borasky said.
Attorney Steven Swan, representing the property owner, the Mary Wiley Trust, owners since 1947, said if the solar project doesn’t materialize they could go forward with developing home lots or other projects on the property that would have more of an impact on the environment, when the economy improves. He said 140 acre feet of water is less than would be used on 40 acres of alfalfa.
The members of the Mary Wiley Trust, who have owned the property since 1947, could negotiate with various owners to develop the property, Swan said. But he added, “BrightSource Energy is highly effective and successful in developing projects that are environmentally friendly and respectful of the environment and conditions that can operate.”