New Solar Energy Zone at Chocolate Mountains



by Chris Clarke

CHOCOLATE MOUNTAINS – The U.S. Department of the Interior has made its decision: a broad swath of public lands along the east shore of the Salton Sea will be fast-tracked for solar and geothermal exploration and development. The 100-square-mile West Chocolate Mountains Renewable Energy Evaluation Area (REEA) will host up to 33 square miles of new solar development and 30 square miles for geothermal exploration.

The approval of the REEA was formally announced Tuesday at the National Clean Energy Summit 6.0 by Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, who told the crowd, “We need to take a close look at these resources to determine where it makes sense to develop renewable energy and — just as importantly — where it does not.”

The REEA occupies the Imperial County portion of the east shore of the Salton Sea from the county line to a point east of Calipatria. Squeezed in by the sea to the west and the U.S. Navy’s Chocolate Mountains Aerial Bombing and Gunnery Range to the east, the REEA would include most of the publicly accessible land in that part of Imperial County — including the famed Slab City encampment. Most of the REEA lies below sea level west of the Coachella Canal, though a swath of about 20 square miles east of the canal, half of which is BLM land, is included east of Calipatria.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) had asked the BLM to exclude land east of the Coachella Canal from the REAA, citing that area’s importance as habitat for desert tortoises. The BLM didn’t heed USFWS’s request, instead limiting solar development in that part of the REEA to 10 percent of BLM lands in the eastern section. That amounts to about a square mile of tortoise habitat potentially lost. The BLM did exclude lands east of the Coachella Canal from the newly created Solar Energy Zone that coincides with the western section of the REEA, meaning that developers east of the canal won’t be able to take advantage of the permitting shortcuts Solar Energy Zones offer.

Ecologically speaking, the REEA is a mix of standard Colorado Desert habitat with shrub stands and desert pavement, riparian forests of mesquites, palo verde and smoke tree, checkerboarded with active and abandoned agricultural fields and other impacted land. Despite abundant evidence of human alteration, the land is an important wildlife area, with the Salton Sea attracting millions of migrating water birds to the vicinity each year. The impact of building 30 square miles of photovoltaic panels in close proximity to the Salton Sea’s water bird habitat may involve, well, literal impacts, seeing as the birds seem to mistake photovoltaic arrays for water.

Nonetheless, many environmental groups are likely to applaud the designation of the West Chocolate Mountains REEA, having offered the land up to the BLM as a trade for excluding the proposed Iron Mountains and Pisgah Solar Energy Zones from consideration during the years-long Solar Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement (PEIS) process.

The new 10,759-acre Solar Energy Zone in the West Chocolate Mountains REEA is California’s third, joining the Imperial and Riverside East SEZs. All told, that means the Interior department has declared 164,391 acres of the California Desert as Solar Energy Zones, more than in the other five southwestern states covered by the PEIS combined.