• Steve Brown

Daggett Solar Power Project Could Negatively Impact Afton Canyon and Camp Cady Wildlife Area

Afton Canyon is one area that could be negatively impacted by the Daggett Solar Power project recently approved by the San Bernardino County Planning Commission. Photo courtesy BLM.

According to the Mojave Basin Area Watermaster that is responsible for adjudicating water rights within the Baja Subarea aquifer that provides water for the Daggett and Newberry Springs areas, the Daggett Solar Power Facility, Dagget Solar Power 1, LLC project recently approved by the San Bernardino County Planning Commission, could negatively impact both the nearby Camp Cady Wildlife Area, as well as Afton Canyon.

The Mojave Basin Area Watermaster details the agency's objections in an April 29, 2019 letter commenting on the Draft Environmental Impact Report for the Daggett project. This letter follows two letters from 2018 outlining the agency's concerns.

The agency oversees the water rights of all parties within an area of about 3,400 square miles, where approximately 4,700 people share the same limited water supply that is currently in overdraft. The letter notes, "Total water production in the area was about 24,500 acre-feet for 2017-18. The long-term average annual water supply is estimated to be about 11,600 acre-feet."

The Baja Subarea, the name for the aquifer for the area, is divided into two sections by the Calico-Newberry Fault. The Western Baja Region provides water for the Daggett area, while the Eastern Baja Region supplies water for the Newberry Springs Area. Recharge rates for the aquifer is lower in the eastern section of the Baja Subarea than it is in the west.

"Impact would be significant and unavoidable."

The Mojave Watermaster letter states, "The Draft EIR fails to address the impact below and does not provide sufficient mitigation to alleviate the impact. The EIR specifically states that: 'The project could substantially deplete groundwater supplies or interfere substantially with groundwater recharge such that there would be a new deficit in aquifer volume or a lowering of the local groundwater table level. Impact would be significant and unavoidable.'"

The letter notes the Draft EIR is "inconsistent" with the County General Plan on management of water resources within San Bernardino County, in direct opposition to the stated goal of the County Watermaster to "ensure a balanced hydrological system in terms of withdrawal and replenishment of water from groundwater basins."

In the case of the Mojave Watermaster, the agency is also under direction of the Superior Court per the judgment in the City of Barstow, et al. v. City of Adelanto, et al. The judgment from 1996 adjudicated the water rights of the Mojave Basin Area and the Baja Subarea, which the Mojave Watermaster oversees.

"Watermaster is requesting that the County require mitigation for increased overdraft that could occur in the eastern Baja area if this project is approved," the letter notes. "We recognize that total water production in the Baja Subarea might decrease if this project were approved, but the Wastermaster would like the County to recognize the impact of increased water production on the hydrologic system in the eastern Baja area. This area would be adversely affected and would further be thrown out of balance, which directly contradicts the policy outlined in the County's General Plan and requires mitigation.

"Additionally, negative impacts to riparian habitat and California Department of Fish and Wildlife's (CDFW) Camp Cady Wildlife Area could be increased."

" is also likely that the Afton Canyon area and the riparian habitat there would be impacted."

The letter notes there are several Areas of Critical Environmental Concern listed by the Bureau of Land Management within the county, one of which is the Afton Canyon area. "If water production is moved from western Baja to eastern Baja, it is also likely that the Afton Canyon area and the riparian habitat there would be impacted."

The Mojave Watermaster recommends in the letter that the project proponent should procure the Base Annual Production rights associated with the agricultural properties being acquired, recommending that those rights be held by the project proponent and not used or sequestered for the benefit of the basin. The letter notes the County "cannot rely on statements of current land owners to assure that the water rights will not be used in the eastern Baja area," adding the rights are legally transferrable within the Baja Subarea and can be used anywhere within that area, and can be purchased by new owners and used for properties anywhere within the Baja Subarea.

The Mojave Watermaster points out there is precedent for requiring this acquisition of water rights for solar power projects. It notes the Mojave Solar project (Abengoa Solar) at Harper Lake was required by the California Energy Commission to sequester a large portion of their water rights (in addition to an adjustment made by the Watermaster as required by the judgement), with its water use limited to a specific annual amount to prevent a lowering of the water table.

"The eastern Baja area contains a higher concentration of small or minimal users who are economically disadvantaged and cannot afford to drill their wells deeper."

The letter also raises the social and economic justice aspects of the project's water use, noting "The eastern Baja area contains a higher concentration of small or minimal users who are economically disadvantaged and cannot afford to drill their wells deeper. Recently, at meetings of the Watermaster, these small users have stated that their wells are being affected by the falling water table in the area."

California Department of Fish and Wildlife's Environmental Program Manager for the Inland Desert Region, Scott Wilson, agreed with the Watermaster's conclusion that the project "will likely contribute to increased water production east of the Calico-Newberry Fault and directly impact Camp Cady Wildlife Area, the riparian habitat along the Mojave River and other critical resources in the area that depend upon groundwater." The CDFW recommended the County condition the Daggett Solar project on either retiring the Base Annual Production rights associated with the properties for the project, or to sequester water rights for the project so they can only be used on the west side of the Baja Subarea, protecting the more vulnerable eastern side of the aquifer.

The response in the EIR from San Bernardino County's Land Use Services was wholly dismissive and claimed the Watermaster and CDFW did not provide enough evidence to support their claims, while providing no evidence the agencies were incorrect, an almost cavalier approach toward water resource management and those county residents dependent upon the resources that could be impacted by this project.

The Daggett Solar Power project is one of a handful of utility scale solar projects that was allowed to proceed while Land Use Services had sidelined the Renewable Energy Conservation Element 4.10 language. Land Use Services had been directed to have the Planning Commission review the RECE 4.10 language and then have it brought back to the Board of Supervisors for review and approval.

However, Land Use Services seized on that directive as an opportunity to sideline the language, which would have prevented projects such as this; allowing projects to apply and be approved for consideration while there was no language to prevent them. Ultimately, Land Use Services used this opportunity to meet with project developers privately after public comment period had ended so it could propose alternative language that was industry-friendly, instead of the original language which was crafted by county residents. The original RECE 4.10 language was finally adopted approximately 1.5 years after Land Use Services had been directed to refer it back to the Planning Commission.

The Planning Commission unanimously approved the Daggett Solar Power project and it will now advance to the Board of Supervisors for their consideration.

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