The Colorado River Indian Tribes argue a flurry of “fast-tracked” solar projects springing to life in the Mojave Desert threaten their ancestral homeland and have taken their complaints to state and federal courts.
The tribes filed suit against Riverside County last month – their second suit aimed at slowing down a solar project since the tribes filed suit against the Bureau of Land Management in federal court in December.
Arguing the projects are sited across land essential to their cultural and religious heritage, the tribes have asked governments – and now the courts – for greater involvement in evaluating projects and mitigating the impacts they would have on artifacts, burial sites and spiritual pathways.
“We are always behind the eight ball, we aren’t listened to, our concerns aren’t taken into consideration,” said CRIT Tribal Councilwoman Amanda Barrera, of Parker, during a Wednesday interview. “These have always been and will always be our land; we are always going to be here, listen to us, pay heed to us.”
CRIT is a group of four distinct tribes – Mohave, Chemehuevi, Hopi and Navajo – with a council of nine members. Barrera is a Chemehuevi. She said she has seen the impact of solar projects first hand, joining a delegation that visited a San Diego warehouse housing around 3,500 tribal artifacts turned up during work on a solar development in 2012.
“What hurts the most is when you go out with solar companies that don’t know this area, and they say there is nothing in the desert...” Barrera said.
In the BLM lawsuit, a federal judge earlier this summer rejected the tribes’ request to grant an injunction against the solar project from moving forward and will hear oral arguments on the merits of the case later this month, said Sara Clark , an attorney with San Francisco-based firm Shute, Mihaly & Weinberger, which represents the tribes.
The most recent complaint focuses on Riverside County’s zoning approval of a separate solar project, arguing an environmental review relied on an “inadequate… analysis” of the project’s impact on cultural resources such as the presence of prehistoric trails.
The review also failed to consider the environmental justice impact of developing the project on ancestral tribal land as well as the “cumulative impacts of the many projects” planned for the area, the tribes argue in the complaint.
“The project is just the latest in a string of similar facilities that are radically transforming this landscape, disturbing buried resources, and severing the tribes’ link to its past, culture, and religion,” the complaint argues.
The expansion of solar development in the desert near the CRIT reservation and stretching across their ancestral lands comes as California and President Barack Obama’s administration push to increase the percentage of energy development that comes from renewable sources like solar and wind. The governments have put in place procedures meant to streamline permitting for projects as well as offer tax incentives and other funding.
The Blythe Solar Power Project, located two miles north of I-10 and eight miles west of Blythe, Calif., sits on more than 4,000 acres of federal public land. The solar farm, owned by NextEra Energy Resources, has the potential to generate 485 megawatts of electricity – enough to power between 150,000 and 360,000 homes.
Straddling I-10 about three miles west of Blythe, the Blythe Mesa Solar Power Project sits on more than 3,500 acres and would generate a similar amount of electricity as the Blythe Solar project. Riverside County approved this project in May.
In making their broader point of multiplying impacts, he tribes point to 10 utility-scale solar projects approved or still under consideration within 50 miles of reservation boundaries. The projects comprise over 35,000 total acres.
When the tribes’ attorneys present their oral arguments in federal court later this month, they will focus on the government’s lack of adequate communication with the tribes and consideration of tribal concerns.
“We are concerned about the consultation piece in particular, and the federal government’s willingness to walk away from obligations under programmatic agreement and (federal laws) and not consider environmental and cultural harms,” Clark said.
Barrera said the tribes aren’t against solar development in the desert but that they want to see it handled in a way that takes into account tribal concerns and allows the tribes to protect ancestral sites.
“I was brought up to respect this land,” Barrera said. “You take care of it, you give thanks for it, and you don’t take more than what you can use.”