SDSU water expert concludes Soitec’s 4 projects will use more water than rainfall can replace, placing entire ecological system at risk. Other experts confirm serious water concerns
By Roy L. Hales; Miriam Raftery also contributed to this report
(photo: Dead trees from well pumping that lowered water table elsewhere illustrates what experts and residents fear could occur in Boulevard.)
February 9, 2014 (Boulevard)—Hydrology experts are casting serious doubts about the credibility of water use claims made by Soitec Solar for four massive solar projects proposed in San Diego’s rural East County.
Boulevard was once a quiet rural neighborhood. People moved here to enjoy the open spaces, shady groves of trees and overall appealing rural community character. The Community Plan Update approved by the San Diego County Board of Supervisors in 2011 prohibited industrial development. That changed after Supervisors revised Boulevard’s community plan over local residents’ objections to make way for large energy projects. Now Soitec Solar, Inc is on the verge of utilizing 1,473 acres of meadows and wetlands land zoned agricultural or residential (1 house per 80 acres maximum under the prior zoning) for four projects with 7,409 dual tracking concentrated PV solar modules. (photo: Each module would be 30 feet tall and about 50 feet wide)
Soitec’s developments will use at least 50 million gallons of groundwater or more. According to a report commissioned by the community, Boulevard does not have this much.
Moreover, a separate research project initiated by Jacumba Sponsor Group Chairman Howard Cook concluded that Soitec's estimates appear off by a country mile--and that the projects could use far more water than Soitec predicts. Cook writes that his team was "astonished" by significant construction water activities missing from Table 6 in the draft EIR, including road building, construction of underground utilities and an on-site substion, on-site cement making and rock crushing operations, and more.
Dr. Victor Ponce, author of the report commissioned by the Boulevard community, has had 40 years experience in water resources and has taught hydrology at San Diego State University since 1980.
“The area is forced to rely solely on groundwater, which is replenished only from precipitation,” Dr. Ponce said of Boulevard.
According to Soitec’s consultant, Dudek, the area has sufficient water for the four projects, with backup groundwater supplies from Jacumba Hot Springs and Pine Valley.
But Ponce’s calculations show otherwise.
Ponce calculates that the proposed Rugged Solar installation is in the Tule Creek floodplain. This project will result in total water needed that’s 145% more than the mean annual recharge—which means “eventually streams, marshes and springs dry up,” he said. (photo: Rugged solar site and wash running through it)
As for the Tierra del Sol Solar project, the total construction water demand is 61.37 acre feet. “Pumping of this amount of groundwater in one year represents 221% of the mean annual recharge, a level of pumping that is sure to place at risk existing natural ecosystems," Ponce concluded. (photo: Riparian corridor in creek at Maupin Ranch in Tierra del Sol)
LanEast & LanWest Solar have similar unsustainable water needs. “The wisdom of placing a solar energy project directly on top of a meadow/wetland is highly questionable,” Ponce said of these. Troublingly, true demand during construction “has not been clearly established.” The maximum volume that could be pumped from existing wells without encroaching upon established rights is 5.7 acre-feet. Yet the total construction water demand is 33.29 acre-feet.” That’s a whopping 175% of the mean annual recharge. Ponce sad this level of pumping is “sure to place at risk existing natural ecosystems.” (photo: Walker Creek Meadow, shown in blue, is within the LanWest and LanEast sites)
The SDSU hydrology expert’s report concluded that, “No development, no matter how lofty its aim, should place at risk existing natural ecosystems. Other considerations notwithstanding, the Boulevard Soitec projects must resort to imported water to satisfy their needs.” (photo: 300-year-old oak tree is among many mature trees that could be at risk if groundwater resources are depleted.)
Ponce isn’t the only water expert questioning Soitec’s water usage estimates.
Here’s what Marty Kennell has to say. His company, Well Done Pump Service & Supply in Boulevard, has been selling, installing and repairing well water pump systems for 25 years in East County – and he says he has proof of water levels dropping 10 to 60 feet. He’s also seen former year-round creeks no longer visible above ground.
“My personal history in water well systems in the eastern areas of San Diego County leaves me with the opinion that the project presented by Soitec Solar will have a detrimental effect on water supply, usage and potability,” he wrote in a letter to Robert Hintgen at the County’s Department of Planning and Land Use Services.
He attributes the recent drops in well water in part to growing business and industrial activity, including casinos, new Border Patrol and Sheriff’s stations, as well as SDG&E’s Sunrise Powerlink and new Eco and Boulevard substation construction. SDG&E ended up using three times more water than its original estimate--an increase from 30 million to 90 million gallons.
Noting that trees are dying from lack of water, he voiced opposition to selling water for more industrial projects that will use millions of gallons of water amid the drought. When trees die from lack of water, that also heightens fire danger. (photo: wildfire in 2012 destroyed homes and killed a resident in Boulevard's Tierra del Sol community)
“Too much of what Soitec alleges will not affect the residents is just the opposite of what I have found to be fact,” Kennell concluded flatly.
Local inhabitants are also concerned that Soitec, like SDG&E in its recent substation project, could be seriously underestimating the amount of water required for their project.
This is not the only concern expressed by Boulevard residents. Soitec claims its solar modules have reached 30% efficiency and insists the panels have been treated to resist glare. (Photo, left, from Soitec's Newberry Springs shows the problem persists under certain conditions.)
In comments submitted by Boulevard's Planning Group, planners expressed "lack of faith in Dudek's abilities due to multiple conflicts of interest, lack of neutrality, apparent bias, and recent failure to accurately analyze the groundwater/hydrological interconnections and adverse impacts to off-site wells at the Madera Golf Club in Poway." Tellingly, Dudek's error there became evident when irrigation wells had to be curtailed due to significatn drops in water levels predicted by Dr. Ponce--the same expert now warning of ecological disaster from Soitec's proposed projects.
“No other community is facing this level of unwelcome and unjust conversion,” said Donna Tisdale, Chair of the Boulevard Planning Group.
Tisdale believes the amendments that made these projects possible also violated the inhabitants of Boulevard’s rights under the California constitution.
“The Plan Amendments were made to benefit commercial interests at the expense of residents and other non-participating land owners and resources.” Tisdale said. “This is biased, unnecessary, and unjustified.”
“The planned industrial-scale development of solar energy in Boulevard and surrounding communities is likely to permanently change the essentially rural character of these East San Diego County communities,” Dr Ponce wrote. “While the negative impacts of energy development will be felt locally, its benefits will accrue somewhere else, very likely in distant urban settings.”
Residents have launched an online petition asking Supervisors to save their wildlife, water supplies, wild and scenic places. and put solar in urban environments instead. You can read the petition and sign it here.