A Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP) proposal to construct a Southern Owens Valley Solar Ranch on 1,200 acres on the north side of Manzanar Reward Road and east of the Owens River has Inyo County residents up in arms.
Manzanar National Historic Site Superintendent Les Inafuku addressed the Inyo County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday, Aug. 6 with his concerns about the proposal, beginning with its potential impact to what he called “an important, invaluable landscape.” The installation of a 200-megawatt solar photovoltaic plant, with approximately one million panels, in addition to transformers, collection systems, substations, a control building, access roads and security systems, will have “an irreversible, negative impact on the culturally significant views from Manzanar,” Inafuku said. He argued that facility lighting, as well as the potential for glint and glare, will also have a negative impact on the National Historic Site visitor experience.
Two years ago, the DWP issued a Notice of Preparation of Environmental Impact Report (EIR) for the proposed Solar Ranch in the vicinity of Lone Pine. The DWP identified two sites at that time: the first, south of Lone Pine and adjacent to the shore of Owens Lake, and the second east of Lone Pine on the bank of the Owens River north of Narrow Gage Road. Why the project site was recently moved so close to Manzanar remained unclear; DWP Public Information Officer Chris Plakos was out of town and unavailable for comment.
Inafuku’s final concern with the placement of the proposed solar project was that it would sit on the location of Manzanar’s historic, WWII-era solid waste pit. “At the very minimum, an archaeological study,” in addition to an analysis of visual impact, “must be part of the EIR,” he said.
The discussion of the Southern Owens Valley Solar Ranch arose on Tuesday as part of the Board’s consideration of a Term Sheet for a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the DWP prior to the release of the EIR, which is anticipated sometime later this month. Because the project would be built on DWP land, the County ultimately has little say in the proposed Solar Ranch, and looked to the Term Sheet, drafted over several meetings between County and DWP staff, as an opportunity to ensure minimal economic impacts to the County over the lifetime of the project.
The draft Term Sheet included $4.5 million paid by the DWP to the County to offset County costs, considering Inyo will collect no property or sales tax on the project, but will suffer wear and tear to roads and services. The Term Sheet also provided an additional $2 million economic development loan that the County may use to develop short-term housing for the solar project workers, estimated to range between 70-350 from the beginning of construction in 2014 to the peak of construction in late 2015. Project construction, proposed in four phases of 50-megawatt blocks each, would conclude in 2019.
In addition, the Term Sheet offered 10 megawatts of renewable energy development to provide local benefits, including sales and use taxes, and a promise to pave and maintain the Manzanar Reward Road during construction and subsequent retrofitting or decommissioning work. Finally, the Term Sheet offered a commitment to develop a hiring program that will ensure 10 local participants during construction, with an end goal to develop long-term DWP employment for those participating residents.
However, residents in the audience at the Board meeting considered the Term Sheet, which would precede an MOU that, if signed, precludes the County from challenging the Final EIR, as a $4.5 million bribe. Local April Zrelak wondered, “If the DWP can just go ahead and build a solar ranch without regard to County rules and ordinances, then why sign away additional authority?” She added, “The DWP does not put something in a document that they’re not going to use later.”
Zrelak and others questioned in particular the DWP’s proposal to construct two groundwater wells as part of the project, which the DWP stated were expected to provide no more than 180 acre-feet per year of water for dust control during construction, and 10 acre-feet for dust control, landscaping and cleaning during long-term operation. Sally Manning, Environmental Director for the Big Pine Tribe of the Owens Valley, presented a letter from the Tribe arguing that the DWP phrasing regarding the amount of water is too vague. “These wells must be subject to the Water Agreement,” she said.
“I hear your concerns, and they resonate with me,” said Supervisor Jeff Griffiths. He proposed an explicit cap on water pumped from the wells as a condition of Board approval of the Term Sheet. “That [language] would have to be changed to make me more comfortable that we are maintaining local control.” However, Inyo County CAO Kevin Carunchio noted that the DWP, which separately agreed to the Term Sheet during the Board of Supervisors meeting, might not agree to an MOU with such a stipulation.
Olancha resident Ronald Higgins voiced the ultimate frustration of many that a solar project to provide renewable energy to Los Angeles would be built in the Owens Valley. “Go build the damn thing in Beverly Hills,” he said.
“These are tough decisions to make,” replied Supervisor Matt Kingsley, “but everybody wants green energy; nobody wants to see it. At some point in Inyo, there’s going to be solar. I think anywhere we propose it, we’ll have the issue of both panels and power lines.” The Term Sheet, Kingsley continued, is a way for the County to “try to protect ourselves, economically,” while still allowing the County an opportunity to comment on the Draft EIR. “I don’t see what we get, honestly, if we don’t sign the Term Sheet,” he said.
Supervisor Linda Arcularius pointed out that, if the Board accepted the Term Sheet, “We still have a decision point to accept the MOU or not.” Moreover, she added, “This project may not go through. That’s what the environmental process does.” If the Board didn’t accept the Term Sheet, argued Supervisor Rick Pucci, “The State will support the DWP, and then we’ll have no ability to get into what this project might look like.”
The Board approved accepting the Term Sheet 4-1, with only Supervisor Griffiths against it. The Board, and residents of Inyo County, will have 30-60 days to comment after the DWP releases the Draft EIR later this month; the MOU between the County and DWP will likely be prepared before the close of this public comment period, according to County Attorney Greg James.
In the meantime, CAO Kevin Carunchio proposed crafting a joint defense with local Tribal entities and the Forest Service so that, should the County decide to oppose the Southern Owens Valley Solar Ranch project, “We’ll have all the friends we can get.”