The canyon walls are silent right now. That’s what worries locals. Two weeks ago, residents of scenic Whitewater Canyon above the Interstate 10 freeway just outside Palm Springs received letters from federal officials saying hundreds of old, noisy wind turbines that have been shut down could soon be replaced with 11 sleek, modern turbines.
While that might seem like good news at first glance, denizens of this spectacular canyon say it’s just the opposite: The new turbines will stand up to 500 feet tall, as much as five times higher than the current, stubby windmills tucked out of sight behind the western ridge.
For almost half a century, while the San Gorgonio Pass below was turned into North America’s first commercial wind energy zone, this pristine canyon carved over millennia by the rushing waters of the Whitewater River remained largely untouched, protected by federal and county officials as a “no windmill” zone.
Now, with cities across California and the U.S. cutting the cord on coal and other polluting energy, a multinational renewable company says the need is too great to ignore these windy ridges. That has locals making some noise of their own.
“Imagine something 500 feet high lining that entire ridge behind me,” said Wayne King, standing next to his one-acre home site, first built in the 1850s. “Those huge blades will be extremely intrusive, and it will be a very very large noise, probably a lot louder than the sound of those smaller ones.”
King, who is the unofficial leader of foes of the new proposal, and his neighbor Eva Mansell rattle off other concerns: There have been three wildfires in the past five years in the area, they said, sparked by oil leaking from windmills into dry brush. There’s only one, dead-end road through the canyon, and hundreds of schoolchildren and others who travel to the preserve at the end on weekdays could be trapped if a blaze broke out.
The desert tortoise and numerous rare bird species depend on the riparian canyon for laying eggs and nesting, and their patterns could be disrupted if the new turbines’ vibrations are louder.
‘They’re up to their old tricks’
The interior canyon was long ago declared off-limits for the wind turbines that are thickly clustered in other parts of the San Gorgonio Pass, one of the windiest spots in North America, said King.
“We are in Whitewater Canyon, which is part of the Sand to Snow National Monument and on a scenic byway,” he said. “In 1999, this was designated to be a windmill-free zone.”
Letters and other documentation provided by King show that the Bureau of Land Management declared this spot an “area of critical environmental concern” in 1980, and Riverside County designated it a state-qualified scenic corridor a few years later. Follow-up correspondence states that no windmills can be visible from residences in the sparsely settled canyon.
But developers have continued to try. In 1999, the BLM’s then-director of the Palm Springs field office hand-delivered a letter to canyon residents denying permission for six 300-foot turbines on the eastern canyon ridge, and reaffirmed the agency’s longstanding commitment to protect the view from the canyon.
A few years ago, Riverside County planners notified King of another proposal, which was quietly shelved after he pointed out that it was a no-build zone.
“But they’re back. They’re up to their old tricks,” said King.
Power would be used by Azusa
Others see it differently. The time has come to recognize the importance of the resource – wind – on the slopes above the canyon for the nation and the world, said Andy Davis, a representative for the applicant, Brookfield Renewable Partners. With growing climate change and mandates for clean energy kicking in, Davis says clean, modern wind turbines must be installed in the best possible locations, including poking high above Whitewater Canyon to catch the biggest gusts.
The 30 megawatts that would be generated by the Mesa Wind project have been sold to the city of Azusa in Los Angeles County, which signed a 25-year purchase contract on May 28 with Brookfield. Assuming it’s completed by its 2022 target date, the wind project is expected to provide about half of the electricity used by the city’s businesses and residents, and to increase its renewable portfolio to over 80%, according to Azusa’s fall newsletter.
Davis said he believes canyon residents will see only one or two of the giant turbines, and the site will largely be restored, with heaps of unused metal debris from the old turbines removed. That will benefit drivers below who currently see the old installation.
“When you talk about removing 400 plus turbines and replacing them with a few, you’re cleaning up the area,” said Davis. He said the company was conducting all required environmental and other reviews. “From a conservation standpoint, the wind farm will be far cleaner and far more aesthetic than what is currently there.”
In a written statement, he added: “This project will take a very efficiently located renewable resource and make it even more efficient, with less turbines visible to the public, and less impact to the surrounding environment. This repowering will advance California and the U.S. even closer to 100% carbon-free generation.”
King and Mansell said they find it ironic that a Canadian company is touting state and national green energy. Both think this part of Southern California already contributes far more than elsewhere.
In response, Davis said: “Unfortunately – or fortunately – this area has some of the best wind resources in North America.”
He said while Brookfield’s parent company is based in Toronto, a subsidiary based in New York City handles U.S. projects. The company bills itself as one of the world’s largest publicly traded renewable power providers, with over 18,000 megawatts of capacity and 5,253 generating facilities in North America, South America, Europe and Asia. Three-quarters of that is hydro-power, but the company also handles solar and wind facilities.
The trend: Fewer, but bigger, turbines
The proposed repowering is part of the replacement of thousands of older turbines across the San Gorgonio Pass by numerous owners, which could ultimately reduce the number of wind turbines in and around Palm Springs from more than 2,000 to as few as 600.
BLM staff did not respond to questions about the current proposal or earlier decisions barring construction of tall blades visible above the Whitewater Canyon residences. The staff stressed that the review process has just begun. One said the company is seeking to have it done by June 2020.
In a statement, BLM spokeswoman Sarah Webster said: “The Bureau of Land Management has received an application to repower an existing wind project located in Riverside County. The BLM is currently reviewing the application and will conduct a NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act) analysis to determine next steps for the proposed project. Additional information will be publicly available as the BLM conducts environmental review.”
Mansell, a resident of Bonnie Bell in the heart of the canyon, said she doesn’t buy the arguments about more clean energy when the area is already saturated with wind turbines.
“I’m totally a proponent of green energy, but not big, over-sized green energy,” she said. She thinks it would be better to restore existing windmills and keep them in flat areas along the highway.
“It’s not about not wanting it in my backyard as much as wanting everybody to have a backyard which is of a pristine nature. If we don’t, we’ve lost something we’ll never recover,” she said. “That’s civilization down there, on the road to Palm Springs, and then you look at the other side up here, and it’s pristine.”
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