Giant Solar Farm Puts California Native American Tribe At Odds Against U.S. Government

Plans to build a 709-megawatt solar farm in the California desert have hit a snag after a Native American tribe has sued the U.S. government to stop development of the solar project from proceeding Noel Brinkerhoff reports for All Gov. In its lawsuit directed at the U.S. Department of the Interior, the Quechan Tribe claim federal officials rushed through approval of the Imperial Valley Solar Project, which will consist of 28,360 “SunCatcher” dishes spread across 6,360 acres of public land outside of El Centro, California.

The tribe contends the solar farm could damage Quechan cultural artifacts, as well as desert flora and fauna, including the endangered flat-tailed horned lizard that holds a significant place in tribal lore.

The Department of the Interior approved Tessera Solar’s solar farm proposal in October of this year. Tim Hull of courthouse news writes “The public lands that are the subject of the Imperial Valley are within the traditional territory of the Quechan Indian Tribe and contain cultural and biological resources of significance to the tribe, its government, and its members,” the tribe says in its federal complaint.

“The tribe and its members also have an interest in preserving the quality of the land, water, air, fauna, and flora within the tribe’s traditional territory, within and outside the reservation. Specifically, the tribe is concerned with impacts of the solar project to the habitat of Flat Tailed Horned lizards on lands proposed for development, as the lizard is a central part of the tribe’s creation story.”

In making its “fast-track” solar farm decision, the Secretary of the Interior and others omitted reviews required by the National Environmental Policy Act, the Endangered Species Act, the National Historic Preservation Act, the Federal Land Policy Management Act and other laws, the tribe says.california solar

“Interior arbitrarily placed the solar Project on an artificial ‘fast-track’ in order to meet the applicant’s goal of obtaining millions of dollars of federally available financing that purportedly required project approval prior to the end of 2010,” the tribe says.

“Despite Interior and the applicant’s efforts to ‘fast-track’ the review of the solar Project, Congress did not waive or limit the applicability of any federal laws or regulations related to compliance with NEPA, the NHPA, FLPMA, or other laws with regard to the solar project. Full compliance with applicable federal laws is mandatory.”

Tessera Solar will buy 6,600 acres of flat-tail horned lizard habitat to offset land lost to new roads, structures and traffic through the desert, the Bureau of Land Management said in announcing the project, one of the first solar energy developments to be approved on public land.

The Quechans, a Yuman-speaking people, have lived in the Mojave Desert for “thousands of years,” during which they and their “tribal ancestors traditionally occupied, traveled, traded, and utilized resources within a broad geographical area located within the desert lands of modern-day Arizona and Southern California,” according to the complaint. Today the tribe has about 3,500 members.

The tribe’s 45,000-acre arrow reservation sprawls across the Mojave Desert around Interstate 8, and to the south borders on Baja California, Mexico. The area has long been identified as a prime location to develop utility-grade solar energy projects.

“The solar Project is only one of many large solar and renewable energy projects located on California desert lands that have recently been approved, or are under consideration for approval, by Interior,” the complaint states.

“Approximately 1 million acres of land are currently proposed for foreseeable solar and wind energy utility development on Southern California desert lands.”