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Feds asked to rethink energy project near Joshua Tree National Park

A desert protection group has formally asked the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to reconsider its approval of a large pumped storage project near Joshua Tree National Park. In a formal legal request filed Monday, the Riverside County-based Desert Protection Society charges that FERC’s approval of the controversial Eagle Crest pumped storage project violates several federal laws and should be reconsidered.

The group also says the project poses an undue threat to the Chuckwalla Valley’s groundwater, as well as to wildlife including the Federally threatened desert tortoise.

The project, which FERC approved in June, would consist of two reservoirs holding about 21,000 acre-feet of locally pumped groundwater on the old Kaiser Eagle Mountain Mine property at the east end of Joshua Tree National Park. Environmental activists and the National Park Service have said the project would threaten the Park’s desert tortoises by providing a gathering place for tortoise-eating ravens, and could permanently damage the Chuckwalla valley aquifer.

The project would act as a storage facility for renewable electrical power by pumping water from a lower to an upper reservoir when solar or wind power plants were producing excess, then running back downhill through generating turbines when demand outstripped supply. It would generate a maximum of 1,300 megawatts.

In its filing, the Desert Protection Society charges that FERC illegally deferred consultation with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service over the project’s impacts to the desert tortoise, including plans to relocate tortoises as mitigation for habitat loss as well as plans to install tortoise exclusion fencing without taking into account that such fencing often kills the very tortoises it’s meant to protect.

The group also maintains that FERC violated the Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976 by approving the project as described, which would convey about 440 acres of public land to project owner Eagle Crest Energy from the BLM. The land in question was the focus of a 2009 lawsuit in which the courts found the Bureau of Land Management had illegally given the parcel to Kaiser.

Groundwater concerns include both overdrafting of the aquifer and contamination of groundwater through reservoir seepage through toxic rock layers in the old mine. The State Water Resources Control Board, for its part, approved the project almost exactly a year ago.