Friday, 14 July 2023

So much for being eco-friendly: Desert solar projects in Southern California are draining water reserves of local communities

 The vast solar development projects in Southern California have constrained local water availability and threatened desert ecosystems.

The water-intensive development method for massive solar projects has brought about the fall of groundwater levels, which has impacted the small communities near Desert Center, California, that rely on the naturally occurring underground water reserves or groundwater aquifers. 

Critical local water wells have dried up and land underneath homes has slumped due to the development activity aside from harming the desert ecosystems.

Residents complained that the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the corporations driving the developments in California's Colorado Desert have not permitted them to give enough input in the decision-making action for the developments.

Solar projects do more harm than good

The people said they have not reaped benefits from the solar projects while the stress on their groundwater supply has increased in spite of the bureau's promises that "renewable energy development on BLM-managed public lands will continue to help communities across the country be part of the climate solution while creating jobs and boosting local economies."

Developers depend on the groundwater aquifer because there is no other possible water supply in the region, rendering delivery of water from other areas to the development sites extremely costly.

The development has drained the water reserves for local communities such as one trailer park, which a property manager said would be "dead without water" if the local shortage continues to get worse.

The cost of drilling new, deeper water wells can reach up to $100,000.

The BLM has authorized seven utility-scale developments in the area stretching about 19,000 acres already, with more projects under consideration like the 120,000 acres that are available for development in the area surrounding Desert Center.

The sacred indigenous sites, ironwood trees and endangered desert tortoises are now vanishing and replaced by solar panels scattered around the local communities.

But the people of Desert Center and Lake Tamarisk are starting to push back.

After being shut out of conversations about earlier solar development close to their homes, they are determined to be heard as two new solar projects are proposed in the area.

"No one took into consideration a community lived out here," said Teresa Pierce, a resident of Lake Tamarisk. While they aren't completely against solar, Pierce said: "We're against it being so close to our community and stealing our water out from our aquifer."

Intersect Power, the company behind Oberon and another proposed utility-scale solar project in the region, said in a statement that it had been informed of the problem and was looking into it.

Worries over the effect of solar project development on the local aquifer have long existed. According to Noel Ludwig, a hydrologist with the U.S. Forest Service in Colorado, all the studies on the basin agreed that groundwater was being pumped out at near or above the rate at which the basin can replenish the supply.

"It's just something that's a groundwater issue – not just in that basin, but around the country and around the world. They've been treating it like a bottomless bank account, without accounting for the long-term and certain implications on people's wells," Ludwig said.

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