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Oakland Invades the Desert

Four East Bay companies are leading the rush to develop utility-scale solar power. But some environmentalists suggest there's a big price to pay.



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But no concern rivals the desert tortoise. From 1996 through 2009, the species was among the top recipients of state and federal funds to help endangered species. During those years, $145 million was spent on the reptile, US Fish & Wildlife Services records show — more than was spent on the grizzly bear, the gray wolf, and the bald eagle. Of that amount, $26 million came just last year. And these figures don't include the cost of purchasing land for mitigation, which is a major expense whenever development takes place in the tortoise's habitat. These shy, sensitive animals, which spend most of their lives underground, can die if handled improperly and are highly susceptible to environmental stresses — yet live up to one hundred years in the wild. They've arguably become the California desert's marquee species.

The Ivanpah site is not included in any of the Bureau of Land Management's special tortoise management zones, and has seen occasional off-road vehicle use and light cattle grazing. But the land still provides important tortoise habitat that conservationists will fight tooth and nail to protect, as BrightSource learned early on in the process.

The company's initial proposal for an 11-square-mile site featuring 7 towers was quickly downgraded to a 6.3-square-mile site. Later, it was trimmed another 12 percent to appease several environmental groups who identified the north end of the site as home to particularly rich biodiversity, including a wide range of plant species and high numbers of tortoise. The final design employs 170,000 sun-tracking mirrors, or heliostats, to focus heat on three 459-foot towers topped with water-filled boilers. The resultant steam drives turbines that generate electricity before being cycled back through the system.

In June 2009, midway through the review process, the Sierra Club attempted to halt the project because of its impact on the desert tortoise. The organization requested that the solar panels be moved downhill and closer to the highway, with the uplands reserved as an area of permanent protection. But the California Energy Commission rejected the Sierra Club's proposal on the grounds that it "would not reduce impacts in comparison with the proposed site."

More opposition came later from the Center for Biological Diversity, which threatened to sue the company on the basis of "unacceptable impacts to endangered desert tortoise." Within hours of the organization's deadline to file, and after more than a month of negotiations, it reached a deal with BrightSource. Kieran Suckling, the center's co-founder and executive director, said the agreement should preserve at least 100,000 acres, or 156 square miles, for tortoise habitat — above and beyond the mitigation required by the federal government, which typically specifies a 2:1 or 3:1 ratio of mitigation lands to site acreage. Few of those acres have yet been identified, but the goal is to secure contiguous, high-quality land as close to the site as possible.

"It's going to pretty dramatically increase protection for the desert tortoise," said Suckling. "In this case, because BrightSource had already got the go-ahead at this location, which is not a good location, we had to work the other side of the equation, which was mitigation."

On the Bureau of Land Management's tortoise habitat scale of one to three, one being the most valuable, Ivanpah rates a three, representing ten to twenty tortoises per square mile. Initial surveys in 2007 at BrightSource's Ivanpah site identified only seventeen tortoises across the entire site, a surprisingly low number. Yet three years later, just prior to groundbreaking, the company counted 23 tortoises in the 1.4-square-mile first phase alone, calling into question the accuracy of earlier surveys on whose basis the project was permitted. The company has permission to move only 38 tortoises, so if the remaining two phases turn up more than fifteen tortoises, approving agencies will have to reexamine the project's scope.

Ultimately, when everything was finalized with the project's design and all permits were in, BrightSource still had those 23 tortoises on its hands. To ensure their safety, the company embarked on an ambitious translocation plan. During the final two weeks of October, the company worked with seventy biologists to identify and move all of the tortoises located within the first phase's fenced-in boundaries. The tortoises were transported by hand, one at a time, to twenty-by-twenty-meter pens, or "nurseries" in the company's parlance, located a half-mile from the site, which are fenced in and protected from ravens with mesh.

Within the pens, the biologists re-created the tortoise's underground burrows, facing them in the same direction, digging them at the same angle to the surface, and even stocking them with scat found in the original burrow. They also took blood samples from the tortoises in order to identify which suffer from a disease called Upper Respiratory Tract Disease, which is often fatal and has decimated tortoise populations, with the intention of quarantining sick animals. The process took two painstaking weeks, BrightSource's Wachs said, and should ultimately leave the tortoises better off. In the spring, healthy animals will be moved to protected mitigation lands adjacent to the project site, where they'll be monitored for three years.

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