When former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger first unveiled his plan to map out areas for renewable energy development across the Southern California desert back in 2008, the schedule called for a draft by the end of 2010 and final approval by June 2012.
Nine months into 2013, state officials said a draft of the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan may finally arrive sometime in the fall, but the plan appears to remain tangled between the conflicting concerns of environmental, industry, and state and local government stakeholders.
San Bernardino County has had a temporary moratorium on commercial solar development in the region’s unincorporated areas since June, but now supervisors Robert Lovingood and James C. Ramos have announced two public meetings on the DRECP, one in Lucerne on Friday and another in Yucca Valley on Saturday.
Different from federal solar energy zones, such as the Riverside East solar zone east of the Coachella Valley, the DRECP covers 22,587,000 acres of public and private lands spread over seven Southern California counties – including Riverside, San Bernardino and Imperial counties.
The plan area covers most of eastern Riverside County, with the exception of the Coachella Valley, which was excluded due to the region’s own Multiple Species Habitat Conservation Plan that balances development and habitat protection. It also includes the high desert communities along Highway 62 such as Yucca Valley and Twentynine Palms.
“We’re not just talking about public lands, often in very remote places,” said David Lamfrom, California desert program manager for the National Parks Conservation Association.
“We’re talking about lands in people’s neighborhoods. We’re coming up to the urban interface. The complexion is changing completely in positive and negative ways.”
State and federal agencies working on the DRECP have held public meetings on the plan, but none in the high desert, said Chris Carillo, deputy chief of staff for Ramos.
“All the meetings had been held in Sacramento and Ontario,” he said. “It begged the question – can you guys come out and actually do what you’re doing here but do it in a public way, have the listening session to hear from the people who are going to be impacted.”
Two smaller-scale solar projects in the high desert are already affecting the region, said Jerry Mattos, co-chair of the Joshua Tree Gateway Communities Tourism Committee.
“What we have out here is clear sky and desert,” he said. “Near Twentynine Palms, there is one site that covers 20 acres, and when you’re driving down the highway, it’s not natural; it damages that vista view.”
The meetings in Lucerne and Yucca Valley will be different from the structured nature of state and federal meetings, Lamfrom said. In addition to speakers and panels, the agenda includes breakout sessions to allow community members to get more detailed information on different aspects of the plan.
A recording station will also be available to take oral comments from people who may not be comfortable speaking in public or submitting written comments, he said.
State Energy Commissioner Karen Douglas and Jim Kenna, California director for the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, are expected to attend both meetings, but Lamfrom is concerned about whether the comments they hear will have any impact on the coming draft.
“Later is certainly better than never,” he said. “Once you get into the (environmental impact report) process, it becomes more difficult.”
David Harlow, director of the DRECP, does not expect any major changes in the draft at this point, but said if state or federal officials at the meetings “hear something that is significantly inconsistent with the direction we’re going, they will give that feedback to the writing team.”
Joan Taylor, California-Nevada energy chair for the Sierra Club, also wants the plan to set stronger guidelines for the development of wind projects, which may take up more land than solar.
“Wind is so intermittent, the power is less valuable, so wind projects are land-hungry,” she said. “They haven’t addressed the potential impacts to birds. If wind is ramped up, this is a huge question mark.”
With the draft delayed, state, federal and local agencies working on the plan released a preliminary study late last year laying out six alternatives for designating areas both for renewable energy development and habitat conservation across the plan area.
The renewable energy zones in all the alternatives included land in Imperial County, around the Salton Sea, and in Riverside County, areas in and around Riverside East – 148,000 acres of public land off Interstate 10 between Joshua Tree National Park and Blythe.
The draft will analyze all the alternatives, Harlow said, but single out one as the preferred option for balancing renewable energy development and habitat conservation. While he would not reveal which of the six alternatives will be the preferred, he did say the draft will be thousands of pages long and the release of the document will trigger a 90-day public comment period.
The final plan could take another year after that, he said.
Even though it is relatively late in the process, Lamfrom would like to see the upcoming meetings open up a better dialogue between state and federal agencies and the desert communities.
“I hope that the agencies understand how valuable these landscapes are to the people who live here,” he said. “I hope the agencies come out resolved not to permit projects in bad places. In a place like the desert, it’s a lot more important to get it right because the results of not getting it right are permanent.”
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