Jeniffer Solis

(Nevada Current) Several conservation groups are asking the federal government to cancel a proposed utility-scale solar energy development, arguing the project will cause significant impacts to the imperiled Mojave desert tortoise.

If approved, the Rough Hat Clark County Solar Project proposed by Spain-based Candela Renewables would span 2,400 acres of public land in the Mojave Desert about 40 miles west of Las Vegas, along the Clark and Nye county line.

The proposed site for the 400-megawatt solar photovoltaic facility is also home to an estimated 114 adult desert tortoises, according to a survey by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). Under the project, nearly four square miles of tortoise habitat would be replaced with solar panels, battery storage banks, and new transmission lines.

In a letter to BLM and the Interior Department, conservationists argued the project would eliminate thousands of acres of prime tortoise habitat. The proposed solar site in the Mojave Desert receives an impressive-for-the-Mojave 5 to 10 inches of rain annually due to its higher elevation of 3,000 feet, making it an invaluable habitat for a healthy reproducing desert tortoise population.

More than a hundred adult tortoises would need to be removed during the proposed project’s construction and relocated five miles south to Stump Spring and Trout Canyon. Young desert tortoises, however, cannot be safely relocated to unfamiliar habitats without high rates of death. Even relocation across relatively short distances can be detrimental to desert tortoises’ survival. One long-term study by the U.S. Geological Survey found that in the first three years of relocating 158 desert tortoises less than 10 miles from their habitat about 50% died, mostly due to predators.

In the Pahrump Valley, federal wildlife biologists relocated nearly 150 desert tortoises from a 3,000 acre solar farm under construction near Pahrump. Less than three weeks later, 33 of those tortoises were killed by desperate badgers impacted by drought, according to wildlife managers.

In the Eastern Mojave, where the proposed Rough Hat Solar Project would be located, the desert tortoise saw a 67% population decline in tortoise density between 2004 and 2014, according to a peer-reviewed study. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) has determined that the desert tortoise has seen a 37% range-wide decline from 2004 to 2014 during counts, with little improvement since.

“Approval of the Rough Hat Clark County Solar Project will likely contribute to this ongoing extinction trend by digging up and moving over 100 adult desert tortoises,” said Kevin Emmerich, co-founder of Basin and Range Watch, in a statement. “Associated with desert tortoises are dozens of other species of plants and animals that will be harmed by this project. The desert tortoise is a true indicator species of the overall health of Mojave Desert habitat.”

Candela Renewables did not respond to requests for comment.

Federal land managers released a draft environmental analysis for the proposed Rough Hat Clark County Solar Project in January, while announcing the advancement of three other proposed solar projects in the state. If completed, the Rough Hat Clark County Solar Project could potentially power more than 121,000 homes, according to BLM.

Now conservation groups are urging Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland to cancel the National Environmental Policy Act review for the proposed project. The maneuver would essentially halt the project and has halted other projects in the past. In 2018, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke canceled the environmental review for the Crescent Peak Wind Project near Searchlight, which would have developed over 200 wind turbines on 38,000 acres of wildlife habitat in what is now the Avi Kwa Ame National Monument.

Solar farms are becoming a common sight in Southern Nevada. More than 18,000 acres of desert tortoise habitat have been replaced by utility-scale solar energy in the eastern Mojave, according to the USFWS. There is limited data on whether solar farms can actually function as a stable habitat for desert tortoises, and it’s unknown for now, the USFWS admits. Overall, desert tortoises do not coexist well with human development. Tortoises are essentially absent from habitat within half a mile of areas with even minimal development, including agriculture, energy, pipelines, transmission lines, and roads.

“We support solar project construction on already disturbed lands, and distributed solar in the existing built environment,” said Laura Cunningham, biologist and California director with Western Watersheds Project. “This Mojave Desert ecosystem is a large intact landscape that should be protected, and not developed for energy production when better alternatives exist.”

Nye County has also expressed concerns about the construction of solar developments within one of the most over-appropriated basins in the state. Pahrump Valley’s water basin is estimated to be over-appropriated by 42,000-acre feet, meaning there are more water rights in the valley than actual water available.

In January, the Nye County Board of Commissioners unanimously approved a letter asking Clark County to deny or re-site solar development applications located along the Nye County border near Pahrump, specifically calling out the Rough Hat Solar Project during the board meeting. The solar project would require 800 acre-feet of water for the construction phase of this project and 16-acre feet each year for operation, according to an environmental review.

Conservation groups have also set up a petition calling on the federal government to cancel further environmental review of the solar project.

“For the sake of the future of local water resources, the desert tortoise and other species, and the communities threatened, please cancel the Environmental Impact Statement review for the Rough Hat Clark County Solar Project,” Emmerich wrote in the petition.

The public has until April 11 to submit comments about the draft environmental impact statement before the BLM issues a final approval.