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SLVEC Letter to the BLM

April 12th, 2024


Jeremy Bluma

Bureau of Land Management

Attn: Draft Solar EIS

1849 C Street NW

Washington, DC 20240


Submitted electronically via e-planning: https://eplanning.blm.gov/eplanning-ui/project/2022371/510 


Re: Comments on the Draft Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement for Utility-Scale Solar Energy Development (DOI-BLM-HQ-3000-2023-0001-RMP-EIS)


Dear Mr. Bluma:


Thank you for giving the public an opportunity to respond to, and offer input into the BLM and Department of Energy (DOE) Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement (PEIS) process for agency wide solar energy programs and policy. 

A national and a regional conversation on energy use and, especially, on fossil fuels and their impacts to climate change, is encouraged. It is imperative that our country makes the transition to the use of renewable energy sources.  The warming effects are being felt in the San Luis Valley, as well as in other parts of the world, and are impacting wildlife, water supplies, and forest health. 


We encourage the BLM to adopt Alternative 5, provided in the draft solar PEIS.  Alternative 5 best achieves the goal of balancing conservation with opportunities for renewable energy development. Siting solar projects on previously degraded landscapes close to transmission lines will ensure that we use lands efficiently and preserve more important cultural, ecological, and historical resources. 


Within the San Luis Valley (SLV), 39,100 acres will be analyzed as part of the preferred alternative 3. Alternative 5 appears to understand that we currently do not have the transmission capacity available for large scale solar energy development. We prefer support for building large scale solar projects on private land, which is likely to have already been degraded; and also provide opportunity for private landowners to lease or sell their property to energy companies. In the SLV, this is critical, because of aquifer depletion, and rules by the State of Colorado promulgating that aquifer levels come into compliance by 2030. Solar development on private land thus provides opportunity for Agricultural producers to be able to transition to renewable energy production, and create a financial incentive that would offset ground water pumping.


Thank you for excluding solar development from lands further than 10 miles from existing and/or planned transmission lines in the agency’s preferred alternative and Alternative 5. Siting solar on previously disturbed and degraded landscapes will also help reduce conflicts between resources and solar projects. Such lands also tend to be closer to existing infrastructure necessary for solar projects, such as roads.


The San Luis Valley already has a contract leased with a company on BLM lands located in the northern Solar Energy Zone (DeTilla Gulch SEZ), selected through the 2012 Western Solar Energy Plan, and there is currently no large scale transmission capacity to enable its development.


SLVEC supports development of large scale solar on private lands, which likely already contain disturbed lands. We support private landowners leasing or selling to companies near the 31 existing sub-stations that are located throughout the San Luis Valley. Please see The Nature Conservancy map. 


We recognize the unique and valuable aspects of the San Luis Valley.  We understand that the Valley has enormous potential in the area of solar production, and has a long history of supporting solar energy on a smaller scale.  We encourage the development of renewable energy strategies that will promote the long-term health and well-being of the community, traditional uses, and protect the environment, critical habitat, wildlife, sensitive corridors, and water, as well as the history and culture of this agro-pastoral community.


We urge the DOE and BLM to take a long term view when considering the scale, siting, water demands and the building of new transmission lines that will be required to accommodate Utility Scale Solar development in a culturally and ecologically sensitive area like the San Luis Valley (SLV). It is imperative that solar development remain responsible and that renewable energy development does not compromise this area’s unique values.


We recommend a national model of appropriate energy development based on what is currently being implemented in European countries. They appear to exercise a three-fold strategy; emphasis on flexibility in size and scale fitted to location and need, constructing open ended systems that can rapidly integrate new technologies, and suitably subsidizing research and development that encompasses a range of alternative energy sources.


The Antonito Southeast Solar Energy Zone (SEZ), still remains in place from the previous 2012 Western Solar Plan.  We recommend its removal. The Antonito SE SEZ is located near the designated Cumbres/Toltec Cultural Area of Critical and Environmental Concern (ACEC). The visual resource there, which supports a narrow gauge railroad, deserves protection from large scale development, which would completely change the visual timelessness character that currently exists there.


Three of the other 2012 Western Solar Plan considerations from 2012: 

  1. Four-mile East SEZ-NW corner of Hwy 150 and 160 intersection, (Gateway to Great Sand Dunes National Park), has been removed from consideration.

  2. Los Mogotes East SEZ- directly west of Town of Romeo & Hwy 285, has also been removed from consideration.

  3. DeTilla Gulch- near where Hwy 285 and Hwy 17 converge.  A contract has already been signed for this SEZ in late 2023.



Justification for the removal of the Antonito Southeast Solar Energy Zone

Special Management Areas-Sangre de Cristo National Heritage Area (SDCNHA)

In the 2010 Notice of Availability, the BLM identified a number of different types of special management areas where utility-scale solar development is not appropriate. Areas within the National Landscape Conservation System, including National Heritage Areas (NHA’s) are governed by other laws that require protection of objects of historic or scientific interest, and must be managed to safeguard those values as a priority over other uses. 

The SDCNHA Legislation was signed into law in March of 2009 and reauthorized in 2023, containing the counties of Conejos, Costilla and Alamosa. The Antonito Southeast SEZ- East of San Antonio Mountain area within Conejos County includes a scenic by-way within the area and is also included within the National Heritage Area.


Other Threatened, endangered and sensitive species habitat, as well as critical cores and linkages for wildlife habitat

Excerpts from Sangre de Cristo National Heritage Area feasibility Study

Wetlands and waterfowl

Within the Sangre de Cristo NHA, a mixture of wetland communities including, creek bottom, permanent and seasonal ponds, upland shrublands and playa wetlands provide breeding and migration habitat for raptors, songbirds, waterbirds and waterfowl.  Wetlands are often found in areas where groundwater, from the aquifer, move towards low-lying areas and surfaces on the landscape. 


Globally significant Flora and Fauna

A number of plant, plant community and animal species found in the Sangre de Cristo NHA have been recognized by the Colorado Natural Heritage Program (CNHP) as globally significant.  These species have received a G1 to G3 rating, meaning they are vulnerable to extinction due to a very small population size, a very restricted range, or other biological factors. 


Animals

Southwestern willow flycatcher-(empidonaz trailii extremus), a federally endangered songbird inhabits riparian vegetation within the San Luis Valley, especially Conejos County.  This songbird migrates and nests in dense willow and cottonwood areas throughout the SLV, including areas that are within the Sangre de Cristo NHA.

The following species are also found within the Sangre de Cristo NHA and have been identified as “sensitive” by federal agencies. The sensitive designation indicates that the species’ population viability is a concern. 

  • Greater sandhill crane

  • White-faced Ibis

  • Pronghorn winter range within the Antonito southeast (SEZ)


Plants

  • Slender spiderflower (Cleome multicaulis)- a globally imperiled plant found in the transition areas between wet meadows and the adjacent slat grass/greasewood uplands throughout the NHA. (CNHP 1998). Although once widespread in the southern Rocky Mountains, this species now occurs almost exclusively in the San Luis Valley.

The San Luis Valley contains the most numerous, largest, and healthiest populations of the species in the world.”


Grazing permits

  • There are three grazing permits already located within the Antonito southeast SEZ


Water-The valley’s most prized Resource

Regarding the passage of the Sangre de Cristo National Heritage Area (NHA), the feasibility study states that “no other NHA has explored the role of water in shaping an alpine desert valley’s natural wonders and biological diversity.”  


Water Quality Concerns

The significant recharge areas surrounding the San Luis Valley highlights specific concerns,

especially regarding the introduction of heavy oils for heat transfer; ethylene glycol to stop water from freezing, and other types of potential spillage associated with the development of industrial scale solar.

It is imperative that the public lands within this NHA remain intact and continue as a cultural resource and a living example of the community history of the area. The NHA area needs to be maintained for traditional uses such as hunting, grazing and wood gathering purposes without having to create new access routes or changing the use so significantly that it no longer feasible for the land to be used for human substantive purposes.  The reason for the NHA was to preserve a “sense of place”. It is important to remember that the study areas, if developed for industrial scale solar purposes, will alter surrounding areas as well.


Areas of Critical Environmental Concern


Cumbres and Toltec Railroad Corridor ACEC Travel Management Area

This ACEC is located near the Antonito Southeast solar study area- East of San Antonio Mountain (see map).

The Cumbres and Toltec Railroad ACEC was designated to protect the view shed for this historic railroad which runs from Antonito, CO to Chama, NM.   The railroad is owned jointly by the states of Colorado and New Mexico. It was determined that the VRM classification (Class II) was of critical importance for the railroads financial stability. This is to protect the historic cultural resources in context with the railroad and the VRM classification. This open terrain allows excellent scenery viewing for the train passengers.” 

The final SLV BLM Travel Management Plan (TMP) EA objectives include:

• Strict conformance to VRM class objectives.

• Protect historical and visual values.

• Protect National Register eligible cultural resources for Cumbres and Toltec Scenic Railroad


Ortiz/Stateline

The railroad embraces this area because of the hills with flat open range, pinon, juniper, ponderosa pine forests. Traditional uses follow the wildlife corridor, hunting and fuel gathering used by people of Conejos County for more than 150 years.

Natural Resources include: Gunnison Prairie Dog, pinon-juniper shrublands, ponderosa pine (higher elevation-near Forest BLM boundary). The area is dissected by the Cumbres and Toltec Railroad, and receive multiple exposures from the public. Herd migration patterns continue along Los Pinos Creek between Colorado and New Mexico.  


SLVEC supports excluding designated Areas of Critical Environmental Concern (ACECs) from solar development, and in the case of Cumbres and Toltec ACEC, because of its valuable visual resource, near the proposed Antonito SE SEZ.  ACECs are “areas within the public lands where special management attention is required… to protect and prevent irreparable damage to important historic, cultural, or scenic values, fish and wildlife resources or other natural systems or processes, or to protect life and safety from natural hazards.”  ACECs recognize important ecological and cultural resources and thus are not appropriate for solar applications. 


However, the exclusion criterion as written in the draft Solar PEIS does not account for nominated ACECs that are midstream in planning processes, or nominations previously submitted by the public, but not yet evaluated. This backlog of ACEC nominations is exacerbated by the long queue of decades-old resource management plans awaiting updates. The BLM San Luis Valley Field office management plan is from 1992. As a result, we urge BLM to also exclude nominated ACECs until they have been evaluated by the agency for relevance and importance.


The Solar PEIS must be informed by updated resource inventories and planning. We urge the BLM to exclude all inventoried LWC from solar development, including LWCs that have not yet received land protection measures in resource management planning processes and LWCs identified by the public that have not yet been evaluated under a resource management plan. 


The vast amount of unassessed community-identified LWC is yet another reason to select Alternative 5 in the final Solar PEIS, rather than the agency’s preferred alternative. Alternative 5 would conflict with considerably less acreage of community-identified LWCs than Alternative 3. Alternative 3 overlaps with approximately 1,372,235 acres of community LWCs, while Alternative 5 only overlaps with about 164,376 acres of community LWCs. Simply selecting Alternative 5 would greatly reduce potential conflicts with wilderness characteristics on the public lands and help reduce uncertainty in solar application areas.


National Conservation Lands

We appreciate the BLM’s decision to continue to exclude the National Conservation Lands from solar applications. National Conservation Lands must be managed in order to “conserve, protect, and restore nationally significant landscapes that have outstanding cultural, ecological, and scientific values for the benefit of current and future generations.”  Therefore, BLM must not grant new rights-of-way for transmission of solar energy through the National Conservation Lands and must exclude from solar development areas that would require new rights-of-way or transmission lines across National Conservation Lands. Thus, we applaud BLM’s exclusion of National Conservation Lands from solar applications. Any newly designated National Conservation Lands should similarly be excluded from solar development in the future. 


Tribal Consultation

During this solar planning process, BLM must take all reasonable steps to consult and collaborate with Tribal Nations, local governments, and the public, particularly underserved and historically marginalized communities, throughout the planning period. Tribal Nations have cultural connections to landscapes across the West. BLM must conduct outreach to all affected Tribes throughout the West. Their traditional knowledge and understanding of the landscapes will be critical as the BLM develops this Solar Plan that will impact significant cultural resources. There are significant cultural resources across the West that remain unprotected through official land management designations. Regardless of their existing management designation, these resources should be protected from damages caused by utility-scale solar development. BLM must work with Tribes to identify important cultural resources to be protected and must exclude these areas in the Solar PEIS. 

In conducting Tribal outreach, BLM must respect Tribal sovereignty and principles of self-determination. The Presidential Memorandum on Uniform Standards for Tribal Consultation states that agencies such as BLM “shall recognize and respect Tribal self-government and sovereignty; identify and consider Tribal treaty rights, reserved rights, and other rights; respect and elevate Indigenous Knowledge, including cultural norms and practices relevant to such consultations; and meet the responsibilities that arise from the unique legal relationship between the Federal Government and Tribal governments.”  We expect BLM will comply with the letter and spirit of this Memorandum and other federal cultural and historic preservation laws, including but not limited to the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA) and its implementing regulations.


Water Usage-from The Wilderness Society (TWS) 2012 comments as it relates to the SLV

Water continues to be a major concern in arid regions like the San Luis Valley where the proposed study areas are located and we urge the BLM to take a proactive approach to this issue in the PEIS.

Electric generation from solar (and other) thermal power plants is most efficient when a source of cooling – typically water – is available to remove waste heat from the thermal cycle.  Unfortunately, study areas that are the focus in places like the San Luis Valley, at the headwaters of the Rio Grande, are already dealing with intense competition between over-appropriated water supplies, Rio Grande Compact obligations to downstream users and agriculture.  Permitting water-cooled production of energy from solar resources would add to that competition.  The BLM should explore ways to avoid these results in the PEIS.

One option is to adopt a policy which would discourage the use of wet-cooling for power plants.  Both California and Nevada have adopted such policies.  California’s policy states that the Energy Commission “will approve the use of fresh water for cooling purposes by power plants only where alternative water supply sources and alternative cooling technologies are shown to be ‘environmentally undesirable’ or ‘economically unsound’.”  There is broad acceptance of this policy in California, including among the solar industry, where alternatives considered to date have included use of brackish water as well as dry-cooling.  Although Arizona does not have an explicit policy, it has moved to strictly regulate water use in solar projects.

Alternatively, there is the option of adopting a performance standard that specifies the amount of water that is acceptable per MW generated.  Rather than tie solar development to one specific technology – i.e., dry-cooling, such an option would allow for any technology that would meet the standard and could in fact result in technology improvements.  

 

 1 See, e.g., Renewable Energy Transmission Initiative Phase 1B Final Report (January 2009), Chapter III – Environmental Assessment of Competitive Renewable Energy Zones, p. 3-3 (hereinafter “RETI Phase 1B Report”).

2 See, e.g., Colorado River Project, River Report – Summer 2009, p. 8.  See also id., pp. 4-5, 6.

3  The amount of water used for wet cooling a power tower plant is about 500 gallons of water per MWh of electricity, similar to a typical coal or nuclear plant.  U.S. Department of Energy, Report to Congress, “Concentrating Solar Power Commercial Application Study:  Reducing Water Consumption of Concentrating Solar Power Electricity Generation, p. 4 (hereinafter “DOE Report on Water Use”) (accessible at http://www1.eere.energy.gov/solar/pdfs/csp_water_study.pdf).  A water-cooled parabolic trough plant consumes about 800 gal/MWh, or about four times what a combined-cycle natural gas plant consumes.  Id.  Because wet-cooled plants are more efficient than dry-cooled, see text at note 6 supra, more land would be required to produce a given amount of energy.  

4 See, e.g., California Energy Commission 2003 Integrated Energy Policy Report. 

5 California Energy Commission, Preliminary Staff Assessment, Beacon Solar Energy Project, Application For Certification (08-AFC-2), Kern County (Posted April 1, 2009) (hereinafter “Beacon Staff Draft”), p. 4.9-5.

6 See, e.g., RETI Phase 1B Report, p. 3-3, describing agreement of all RETI stakeholders, including solar generators, to the assumption, for RETI purposes, that dry-cooling would be used except when reclaimed water from communities of a certain size is available.

7  In the case of the Beacon project, CEC analysis revealed that dry-cooling could “reduce … consumption of potable water by up to 97 percent.”  Beacon Staff Draft, p. 1-6.  In addition, the analysis revealed that not only were both of these options economically feasible, but also that dry cooling might “actually result in lower project operating costs.”  Id., p. 4.9-48.

9 For additional options, see DOE Report on Water Use, supra.

 

We also have concerns about converting an Agricultural water right into Municipal and Industrial (M &I) use, which will be the case with Industrial scale solar development. Once that change in water right occurs, it will remain in use for industrial scale purposes because it will no longer be economically feasible for it to return to agriculture.  In viewing this scenario long term, we realize that in 30 years, consideration must be given to the future use of these converted M & I water rights, especially where technological changes will occur that render these industrial scale solar facilities obsolete. 

Finally, there is the option of adopting a technology-forcing standard that would continue to elevate the bar regarding water use and, for that matter, encourage the use of new, innovative technologies. For an example, the Department of Energy’s project selection criteria for renewable energy projects “seeks to give priority consideration to “new or significantly improve technologies” that are not extensively used in the marketplace, See, “Federal Loan Guarantees for Projects That Employ Innovative Energy Efficiency, Renewable Energy, and Advanced Transmission and Distribution Technologies,” Loan Guarantee Solicitation Announcement, July 29, 2009, pp. 35-36.


Recommendations:  The PEIS needs to produce guidelines on water use, including those described above, so that the agency and the concerned public can see the tradeoffs involved in saving fresh water. Some local citizens look at this utility scale solar movement as another opportunity for a large scale water grab, so it is imperative that the BLM be cautious about protecting these ground water systems, that they remain intact for future generations.

In conclusion, we want to ensure that all renewable energy development in the San Luis Valley:

•  Does not put at risk our critically important aquifer, wetlands and other water sources that support migratory waterfowl, nor our diverse ecosystems, nor our historical and vital agricultural base; in particular the extensive but fragile aquifers that underlie these values, that we, and the citizens of the SLV have worked long and hard to protect.


Site Specific Criteria 

The Nature Conservancy (TNC) identified key potential species conflicts that we would like to emphasize.

Since the entire Valley floor appears to be high potential for solar development, key potential conflicts were also identified throughout the Valley and beyond. Below are the most significant from an ecological/conservation perspective based on a preliminary analysis, and for which data was available.  


  • Bald eagle roost sites and winter concentration areas

  • Bighorn sheep production areas and severe winter range

  • Gunnison sage-grouse production Areas, severe winter Range, winter Range, and overall range

  • Globally imperiled plants and natural communities as ranked by CNHP

  • Riparian areas

  • Potential Conservation Areas as identified by the CNHP Sandhill crane habitat




Transmission lines

In addition to industrial scale solar energy plants themselves, habitat fragmentation can be caused by transmission corridors, which will need to be built to facilitate the export of solar power outside the SLV into a larger energy grid. Wildlife habitat fragmentation caused by transmission lines (including branch powerlines), pipelines (including feeder pipelines) and roads generally fall into three broad categories:

1. Construction impacts (access, right-of-way clearing, construction of towers,

stringing of cables);

2. Line maintenance impacts (inspection and repair); and

3. Impacts related to the physical presence and operation of the transmission line.

As such, wildlife habitat must be examined on an individual project and site-specific

basis. The only way to accomplish this requirement is to ensure that each individual solar

project is spatially evaluated for direct, indirect and cumulative impacts.

Specific activities that negatively impact wildlife and cause destruction of core habitat or

habitat fragmentation include the construction of facilities, blading and scraping of the

ground, disturbance of soil by the use of heavy machinery, noisy machinery during

construction and maintenance, noise from helicopters, removal of vegetation, blasting,

filling depressions (a.k.a. re-contouring the landscape), disposal of waste and chemicals

on site, use of herbicides, and the use of borrow pits.


Coordination of Transmission Corridor

BLM must work closely with the designation of new corridors and address it in the PEIS, then BLM must complete all of the necessary NEPA analysis for those corridors, including a thorough discussion as to why the ongoing corridor designation processes will not be sufficient. In making a determination about the need for additional corridors, the BLM should commit to first coordinating with the ongoing designation processes and prioritize using those corridors, instead of designating still more corridors without coordination.  There is currently on-going discussion regarding the upgrade, or building of a new transmission corridor within the San Luis Valley. The focus at this point, seems to be in the northern part of the SLV, but it is important that BLM engages in these ongoing discussions. 


Additional Recommendations

Benefits to the Local Economy from Undeveloped Public Lands

The Solar PEIS should fully address the impacts that utility-scale solar energy

development on undeveloped public lands will have on the local economies throughout

the study area. The San Luis Valley in particular actively maintains the strong economic

and cultural values based on agriculture and ranching. As mentioined above, 3 grazing permits appear to be in the proposed Antonito SE SEZ. The Valley produces 92% of the

potatoes grown in Colorado, which ranks fourth among potato producing states in the

U.S. Local economic benefits of developing BLM lands for Solar siting purposes need to be reflected in the PEIS.


Thanks for giving us the opportunity to submit these comments. We look forward to further discussion and input regarding these programmatic proposed solar study areas.  We appreciate your time and consideration in this matter.


Sincerely,


Christine Canaly

Director

San Luis Valley Ecosystem Council

P.O. Box 223

Alamosa, CO 81101 (719) 589-1518


References

1. Sangre de Cristo National Heritage Area Feasibility Study, Mimi Mathers, Anne Marie Velasquez, July 8.23.05, Shapins and Associates 

2. SLVEC/CSLV/WPC Solar PEIS Scoping Comments -July 2008, Ceal Smith, Research and Coordination

3. SLVEC BLM SLV Travel Management Scoping Comments-July 2004, Christine Canaly

4. The Wilderness Society Solar PEIS Scoping Comments, July 2008

5. Center for Native Ecosystems, Eco Resolutions Forest Service Ecologically based Travel Management Plan & GIS mapping Project Julia Kinsch and Connor Bailey- March 2009  

6. TNC BLM Colorado Solar Study Area Scoping Comments-September 2009

7. CNE Species Data SLVEC google Earth map review- September 2009

8. Conservation Land Foundation public comment, April 2024

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