San Joaquin kit fox said to be threatened by solar project (photo: Rick Deveran, Public News Service)
By Matthew Renda, Courthouse News Service
SAN JOSE (CN) — A giant solar power farm on 2,000 acres of grassland in California's Central Valley will threaten the survival of three endangered species, including a fox, environmentalists claim in court.
The Panoche Valley, west of Interstate 5 and about 60 miles west of Fresno, "represents a lost landscape in California's busy and fragmented Central Valley and surrounding foothills," the groups say in their April 15 complaint.
It's a popular area for birdwatchers because the grasslands attract a wide variety of species.
"It remains, for now, a bucolic valley of open grasslands dotted with small ranches and family-owned organic farms. The Panoche Valley is one of only three core areas left in California necessary for the survival and recovery of the highly endangered San Joaquin kit fox, the endangered blunt-nosed leopard lizard, and the endangered giant kangaroo rat."
The environmentalists say Fish and Wildlife's Biological Opinion and Incidental Take Statement, adopted by the Corps of Engineers, violate the Endangered Species Act, and the Corps of Engineers' Record of Decision and Section 404 Permit violate the Clean Water Act and EPA guidelines.
The project, 30 miles south of Los Baños, will put 6-by-3-foot photovoltaic panels on 1,529 acres of a 2,154-acre site. With the power lines, roads, fences, operation and maintenance buildings and other structures, including mitigation lands, "the project will affect more than 26,000 acres of sensitive habitat," according to the complaint.
Kim Delfino, program director for Defenders of Wildlife, said only three core recovery areas in California support the recovery of the affected species, and the other two, the Carrizo Plain and the Kern area near Bakersfield, are riddled with development. The Carrizo Plain already hosts large utility-scale solar projects.
"The Panoche Valley is the last intact core recovery area," Delfino said. "Everything else been disrupted. This is the last undeveloped place. There aren't any more left.
"If it were possible these critters could live with the project, then I could go and concentrate on other stuff. But they have to grade the project, install thousands and thousands of poles, conduct vegetation control because of fire potential. This is not a project that is compatible with wildlife."
The developer, Solar Valley LLC said the project will help California reach its mandate of producing 33 percent of its electricity via renewable resources by 2020. It will produce enough energy to power 70,000 homes, according to Solar Valley's website.
Estimates of how many homes a megawatt of solar power can serve vary widely, from 164 homes to 1,000. Energy Management Today estimated that it takes 32 acres of solar panels to power 1,000 homes. At that rate, the project could provide power to 48,000 homes.
Solar Valley says construction and operation will create 1,500 jobs and bring nearly $40 million in revenue to San Benito County over the life of the project.
Solar Valley is not a party to the lawsuit.
Delfino said the environmental groups do not oppose utility-scale solar projects; they simply want them in appropriate place.
"I spend a lot of my time in places and looking for places where a project like this can exist," she said. "This project is the exact opposite of the project we are trying to promote."
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said it has not seen the complaint and had no comment.
The groups ask the court to vacate the biological opinion and incidental take statements and the record of decision and Section 404 Permit.
Their lead counsel is Jason Rylander, with Defenders of Wildlife's Washington, D.C. office.