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National Park Service Concerned Over Solar Power Plans on BLM Lands in West

DEVA-Artists Palette, Kurt Repanshek photo

Could vast solar power arrays in the desert West adversely impact Death Valley National Park? Kurt Repanshek photo.

The National Park Service has been trying to raise its "climate friendly" image in recent months, but it's concerned about the potential impact huge solar power arrays on Western lands could have on national parks.

In a story first appearing this past weekend under Rita Beamish's byline at The Associated Press, and picked up today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, Pacific West Region Director Jon Jarvis is quoted in a memo (attached below) that expresses his concerns over how such arrays could threaten the already-meager groundwater supplies for parks.

"The NPS asserts that it is not in the public interest for BLM (Bureau of Land Management) to approve plans of development for water-cooled solar energy projects in the arid basins of southern Nevada, some of which are already over-appropriated, where there may be no reasonable expectation of acquiring new water rights in some basins, and where transference of existing points of diversion may be heavily constrained for some basins."

Water is needed for solar power systems as a cooling agent. Of course, it's also needed for riparian areas, wildlife in general, and the overall ecosystem health. In Death Valley National Park, water can be scarce, and any drop in groundwater that affects water sources that are home to the rare pupfish that live in the park could be the last straw for their survival.

According to PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, "Concerns about the negative impacts of big solar facilities and the transmission corridors they require to deliver power to market has led U.S. Senator Diane Feinstein (D-CA) to propose the creation of a new national monument covering more than a half-million Mojave Desert acres to exclude BLM solar leases." (See attachment below)

PEER is urging alternative approaches such as rooftop solar installations.

"Southern California has vast areas of open roofs that do not require huge new transmission corridors. In addition, there are large private lands, such as degraded cotton and alfalfa farms, that have little current ecological value," says the group. "On public lands, BLM should limit 'Big Solar' power-plants to desert areas that have already been despoiled, such as toxic waste sites and abandoned mines. Co-locating solar plants with already compromised lands not only minimizes loss of wild habitat but also reduces the maintenance burden on BLM of keeping these damaged lands in exclusion."


From Xanterra's 2005 annual report:

Reduced water consumption from 17,308,000 to 14,741,2000 [sic]. This is a 15% reduction from 2004 to 2005. Improvements made: - Reduced lawn watering by reverting to natural landscaping. - Continued use and retrofitting of low flow showers, toilets and faucets. - Continued education of guests and employees on our water conservation ethic. - Replacing guest room linens and towels by request only, to reduce water in the laundry operation.

No mention in the following year's report. While a 15% reduction is laudable, the consumption of over 14,000,000 gallons(?) in a desert national park seems wasteful. At least water use for solar panels will produce a commodity; it's unfortunate that it's subsidized by taxpayers, however, as that might lead to abuse or waste of collectively held land and/or resources.

No mention on whether Xanterra uses gray water on the lodge lawn. When I lived at Zion, and it's been almost a decade, I don't think the NPS used gray water on employee housing lawns. Might have been water diverted from the Virgin River or maybe even treated potable water. Not sure what's going on now, but it would be interesting to know if Zion and other desert parks have limited or stopped such practices.

Frank -

The NPS memo in this case wasn't criticizing another agency's use of water, but rather asking the BLM to fully consider this issue before it issues permits for private utility companies to use more water for new power plants proposed on BLM-managed land. That "new" water will have to come at the expense of other, existing uses.

I agree that everyone and every organization - including the NPS - needs to look for ways to conserve water. If a decision is made to have a lawn in a desert, Bob's comment about gray water is the only way I'd be willing to justify it.

As to a decision to let a faucet run for a day vs. paying overtime for a maintenance employee to come in a fix it ... I'll avoid criticism of that specific situation without knowing all the details. Yes, water is a limited resource, and so are NPS dollars. Life's all about trade offs, isn't it, and the answer's aren't always easy ones.

Since waste water (gray water) is commonly used for irrigating turf at golf courses, picnic areas, and various green expanses in the arid West, are you sure that Zion National Park isn't using gray water for watering the lawn(s) you mentioned? Where gray water is in use there are normally(though not invariably) signs warning that the irrigation water isn't potable.

If the NPS is so concerned about water use in the desert, maybe it should look at and even reduce its own water use before criticizing other agencies' usage.

In Zion, the NPS allows and actively waters lawns. Lawns in a desert.

Just the other day, at a NPS unit in Nevada, rather than fixing a stuck-on water faucet, the park decided to wait a day instead of paying maintenance overtime.

Let's take another look at the main point in the NPS concerns about these solar projects in the desert southwest - the amount of water needed for cooling the power plants.

Potable water is the elephant in the room for much of the country, and future shortages have the potential to eventually eclipse even the supply of energy as a major problem. There's not nearly enough serious attention being paid to the subject of water supplies, and the NPS was correct in raising this concern before a massive investment is made in more water-intensive projects, especially in southern Nevada and southern California.

I believe we need to be moving aggressively on development of alternative power, including solar and wind, but that development needs to be done as wisely as possible.

Back in the early 1970s, Vice President (and soon-to-be-admitted-felon) Spiro Agnew railed against Nixon's vocal foes, calling them "nattering nabobs of negativism." So of course thousands of youngsters bought and proudly wore T-shirts emblazoned with "Nattering Nabob of Negativism." I'm tempted to get me a Tee with an "Envirofreak for Green Energy" emblazoned front and back. Anybody know where I can get one of those?

So what will satisfy the envirofreaks??

There are a variety of ways to prevent freeze damage. Some solar power systems employ a working fluid that includes antifreeze (there are non-toxic choices), while others eliminate the need for antifreeze by using a drain-back system or other adaptations. In some applications, stored heat can be used to warm circulating fluids during unusually cold weather.

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