Environmentalists, desert enthusiasts and East County organizations also object to Tessera’s 10-mile-long, 6,000-acre desert solar farm which would tie in to Sunrise Powerlink
By Miriam Raftery
November 17, 2010 (Ocotillo) – “To me, it is a genocide of our tribal ways and culture,” Preston J. Arrow-Weed, a member of the Quechan Native American tribe, told East County Magazine. Gazing out at the Coyote Mountains on ancestral land he considers sacred, he asked, “All this electricity and who gets it? Not us.”
The Quechan Indians filed a lawsuit October 29th against the U.S. Department of Interior seeking to halt the project. On November 15 and 16, a coalition of Indians, environmentalists and desert enthusiasts staged protests at two solar desert sites. In Ocotillo, dozens of protesters hoped to draw public attention to the project’s impacts on the desert ecosytem, cultural resources and a national historic trail.
“This land is culturally significant to the Yaman language speaking families—Kumeyaay, Cocopah, Quechan, Mojave and Hulapai,” explained Alan Hatcher of Lakeside, a Cocopah tribal member. Lake Cahuillo, which once occupied the land, “is really significant to East County,” Hatcher said. The lake served as a stopover for tribes traveling from Arizona to San Diego’s East County for trading purposes. The lake receded about 500 years ago, but cremated bones of tribal ancestors are buried in the earth here. “It’s sacred to us,” Hatcher said.
Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar announced October 5th that the Imperial Valley project, one of two being built by Tessera and Stirling, was approved and the 709-megawatt concentrated dish solar station would move forward. The other is slated for the Mojave Desert. The two projects will be among the world’s largest solar energy facilities, according to Stirling Energy Systems, producing 1,000 MW of power by 2012.
“These projects are milestones in our focused effort to rapidly and responsibly capture renewable energy resources on public lands,” Salazar said. “These projects advance the president’s agenda for stimulating investment in cutting-edge technology, creating jobs for American workers, and promoting clean energy for American homes, businesses and industry.”
The Tessera Imperial Solar II project, slated to break ground in December, would involve bulldozing 6,000 acres of desert and installing 28,000 “Sun-Catcher” parabolic mirrors over a ten-mile long stretch of desert habitat between I-8 and Evan Hewes Highway east of Ocotillo. Tessera did not return a call from ECM requesting comment for this story.
The mirrors would track the sun, focusing heat on Stirling engines which would power “noisy” turbines, according to Terry Weiner with Solar Done Right. The group wants to see solar installed in urban areas where the energy will be used, such as on rooftops, rather than in desert habitat.
Opponents say the Sun-Catcher technology has never been tested on an industrial scale. “Tessera is using eight months experience with 60 Sun-Catchers in Phoenix to predict 40 years of successful operation of 80,000 Sun-Catchers,” said Tom Budlong, an engineer who intervened in an Imperial solar project with the California Energy Commission. “Only the federal government has agreed to take this risk. Private investors have not.”
Tessera spokesperson Janette Coates provided the following remarks in response to an ECM request for comment.
"Tessera Solar has attempted to take a respectful and responsible approach to siting and permitting the Imperial Valley Solar Project, seeking a way to ensure development of clean renewable energy in a way that minimizes environmental impacts, including cultural resources. Tessera Solar reduced the original project footprint by approximately 1,000 acres to avoid Native American cultural resources. In addition, as we have stated during the course of the environmental review process the BLM and Tessera Solar engaged in a lengthy and thorough consultation with affected Native American tribes and other interested parties that resulted in a comprehensive Programmatic Agreement governing treatment of cultural resources. Under this Programmatic Agreement, Tessera Solar will implement measures to avoid and mitigate impacts to sensitive cultural resources."
But Hatcher and others believe that more needs to be done by Tesssera and the government to address the tribes’ concerns. “It’s on a fast track,” he said of the project. “Just like Powerlink, the public is not aware of the impacts.”
Hatcher added that Tessera is dependant on $250 million in stimulus funding for the project—money he said is largely dependant on breaking ground by December 1st.
“We’re in favor of renewable energy as a human race,” he said, but expressed concern over the desecreation of ancestral lands. “Of course we don’t want it on our sacred land,” he said. Hatcher told a story of seeing a rabbit emerge from a burrow. “That could be one of our elders coming back. It’s as simple as that. It’s a part of our belief,” he said, adding that one elderly tribal woman shed tears at the sight. “We look at this process as removing evidence of our existence here.”
“What we will lose is really diverse lower Colorado River habitat,” said Weiner. The property is under jurisdication of the federal Bureau of Land Management and is critical habitat for Peninsular bighorn sheep, a federally designated endangered species. Numbers have declined sharply in recent years, linked to destruction of habitat.
“I spotted three bighorns here myself on Highway 8,” said Weiner, who said the sheep travel from Coyote Mountains south to the Jacumba Mountains. “The sheep started to be in trouble with building of Highway 8,” she said, noting that the border wall has also prevented the bighorns’ movement into the Juarez Mountains in Mexico. “This is also habitat for badger, mountain lions, coyotes—lots of significant species.”
Kevin Emmerich, a field biologist who formerly served as a park ranger in Death Valley, said herds of bighorn have been seen on this site, which provides both good grazing as well as a pathway for herds to move from one mountain range to another. He fears that industrialization of the area would harm both
“We need to preserve this desert habitat, not industrialize it,” said Laura Cunningham, a herpetologist who contends the project will threaten survival of the flat-tailed horned lizard, a species that has been under consideration for designation as an endangered species. Other habitat areas have already been impacted by housing development, roads and off-road vehicle traffic, environmentalists note.
Tessera has offered to purchase 6,000 acres of additional habitat as mitigation. But Weiner is skeptical whether there is sufficient habitat left. “They’re being allowed to start this project even before identifying property to buy.”
Ingrid Crickmore and her husband, Bob Ellis, are long-time desert hikers and backpackers, as well as members of Desert Survivors, a hiking group that promotes desert conservation. Crickmore criticized “drive by `windshield’ surveys” adding, “They should have gone over it inch by inch.”
Edie Harmon said a staff member at a California Energy committee meeting told her that cultural resource surveys ordinarily take three to five years. “They did this in less than two—not adequate.”
Ellis reflected, “We who live in urban areas need a lot more experience in open space to recharge from the city.”
He voiced outrage that the BLM has approved destruction of a the De Anza National Historic Trail, traveled by early explorer Juan Batista De Anza in 1776 from Mexico to San Francisco. “This project will go totally right over the middle of the national historic trail,” he said. Ellis observed that the BLM “is supposed to manage wilderness areas and national historic trails for the purposes they were designated for, and yet the national office of the BLM decided to put this right over a historic trail.” Greg Smestad, a direct descendant of Batista De Anza, is “very much concerned,” he added, noting that Smestad, who wrote a brochure for the park service, has submitted commentary on the California Energy Commission website opposing the project.
Donna Tisdale of Boulevard said that a grassroots coalition of East County groups including Protect Our Communities Foundation, Backcountry Against Dumps and the East County Community Action Coalition have approved filing litigation against the IV Solar Project, for which phase II is reliant on Sunrise Powerlink. Details are available at www.protectourcommunities.org.
Arrow-Weed, a singer of ancient tribal songs passed down through generations for thousands of years, has also made documentary films on the significant of this region to his people (Journey from Spirit Mountain and Songs from the Colorado River; the latter will be out in December.) He said the ancient songs are proclamations that prove “the land has been given to us. These proclamations are really why I’m here.”
Gazing out at Mount Signal (known as Eagle Mountain today), he observed, “They made the law. They can twist it if the want to and people who have money can twist it, too.” He said he attended a meeting at a BLM office and voiced his concerns. “I said, 1 don’t care what you want. I don’t want you here. Get out.” Other tribes were there. No one gave consent.”
If solar farms must be built, Arrow-Weed believes California should follow Arizona’s example. “They’re putting them on farmland that has already been impacted,” he said. “Why does BLM want to put it on these lands?”
Enticements of employment are merely short term, and Tessera is apt to bring in mostly their own people, not hire locals, he suspects. “The BLM are the stewards of the land. They should say `No. No!” he emphasized.
Arrow-Weed’s tribe today lives on a reservation in southeast California close to the Arizona border. For him, preservation of his ancestor’s ancient migration corridor and sacred sites is imperative. The Coyote Mountains, visible from the site, are part of his people’s creation story, as he related in this ECM video. “That was where the coyote took the creator’s heart ,” he said. “Jumped in the fire, took his heart and ran.”
The story is one of many passed down through proclamations from long ago. “Before they wrote the Constitution, before they wrote the Magna Carta, before they came from England with their papers and their Bibles, we already had those songs proclaiming certain areas—what we felt, what we did and what we lived by,” he said.
Beneath the mid-day sun, the tribal elder gazes heavenward and reflects, “I’m 70 years old and I’ve seen a lot of things in my 70 years.” But he concluded, sadness shadowing his face, “I don’t know if anybody will listen to me.”