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Towers in San Luis get preliminary approval amid environmental concerns

SAN LUIS, Ariz. – Not without opposition from environmentalists, a Maryland company has won another round of approvals for its plans to create electricity from wind inside two towers standing hundreds or thousands of feet high.

The San Luis City Council, having previously approved a series of rezonings for the Clean Wind Energy Project, has approved a required amendment to the city’s general plan to allow for the towers on the city’s southeastern corner.

The council approved the amendment by unanimous vote over the objections of the Yuma Audubon Society, whose president, Cary Meister, said the towers would pose a risk to the habitat of the flat-tailed horned lizard.

Clean Wind Energy plans to locate the towers on a site of more than 1,700 acres south of County 25th Street and between Avenues A and C. The land is federal property that the firm proposes to lease from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.

That area is part of the habitat of the lizard that extends from the Yuma area into the deserts of southern California and into part of northern Sonora.

The lizard has been proposed for protection under the Endangered Species Act, although the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service determined in 2011 that it did not need protective status. Currently its habitat in Yuma is part of a conservation management area.

“The flat-tailed horned lizard is a species at risk, and it is in the process of being placed on the protected species list,” Meister told the council. “There is a debate over that. I don’t know why a company would want to get involved in a unresolved issue. It would be economically more sensible to (locate the project) outside the management area” of the lizard.

He added that lizard had previously lost habitat in the Yuma area to such large-scale construction projects as the border fence and State Route 195 from Yuma and San Luis.

Ronald Pickett, Clean Wind Energy’s president, said the project is already the subject of an environmental impact study and that the firm will take whatever required by the federal government to mitigate any impact to the area.

“But,” he added, “if we move out of the management area, we will impact other species in any case.”

The towers would use desalted water piped from the Sea of Cortez to cool hot, dry air, which in turn would fall through the shafts at high speed, driving turbines that would produce electricity for sale in California and Arizona.

Pickett initially said the towers would reach about 3,000 feet in altitude, prompting skepticism about the feasibility of the project among some area residents and observers. More recently he has said 3,000 feet would be the maximum height but that the towers could end up being shorter.

Clean Wind Energy has said the projects would create 2,500 temporary jobs over the course of the construction of the wind towers, then would employ 1,000 permanent workers to operate the towers.

The prospect of jobs led former San Luis City Councilman Jose Suarez and the city’s chamber of commerce president, Jaime Jimenez, to endorse the project.

“I don’t know how many lizards there are in that area,” Suarez said, “but what matters to me are the people of San Luis. And this project is going to create jobs for our people and economic development for the city.”

Pickett said his immediate concern is getting federal approval to use for the project. The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation has expressed concerns to the city that the towers would take up land where future wells will be needed to meet water supply commitments in the United States and Mexico under the 1974 Colorado River Basin Salinity Control Project.

“Our project does not affect the operation of the wells,” said Pickett. “The towers would be built almost a mile in distance from them. Our project is compatible.”

He said his company has been meeting with federal officials in efforts to resolve those concerns.