Adjacent to the Athos Solar Project solar panel field, a neighbor put up this sign to express his opinion. Credit: Kevin Fitzgerald

Drive about 50 miles past Indio on eastbound Interstate 10, and you’ll arrive at Desert Center, located in the Chuckwalla Valley.

It’s pretty desolate out here, but the area is home to the Lake Tamarisk Desert Resort, where several hundred residents live. They’re mostly older—Lake Tamarisk is designated mas a 55-plus community—although some 60 school-age children live here, too. The residents share a deep appreciation and respect for the natural geographic beauty, the diverse wildlife and the peaceful nature of their self-described “oasis in a living desert.”

They are a hardy bunch, used to relying on each other and their own resources to manage their environment and the resort’s frequent infrastructure challenges. But in the last few months, this group has forged an even stronger bond as they find themselves confronted on all sides by utility-scale solar installations—which are threatening to harm or even destroy their oasis.

According to a September 2021 report from the U.S. Forestry Department and the Bureau of Land Management, 14 such solar installations have been approved to be built in what is known as the Riverside East Solar Energy Zone (RESEZ). Within sight of Lake Tamarisk alone, at least five have either been completed or are under construction; all are at least partially operational. Several others are slated for construction, entering the BLM planning phase required before the building begins.

The recent mobilization of this group of concerned residents was triggered when one resident, Matt Green, shared a letter of notification that he received from the BLM. Dated Oct. 7, the letter informed him, as a property owner in the Lake Tamarisk Desert Resort, that the Easley utility-scale solar installation, owned by Intersect Power (a company that owns other solar installations in the area), had submitted a right-of-way application to the BLM. The BLM was initiating a “scoping process” to solicit public input about the proposed project.

The group of residents discovered, to their dismay, that some of the solar-panel arrays would come within 750 feet of their homes, which have been there for decades.

Maryel Green and members of her extended family are long-term residents of Lake Tamarisk. She wrote to the BLM, saying in part: “You are totally wrong if you think this problem only concerns properties adjacent to these sites. Solar fields are totally surrounding Lake Tamarisk and all the populated areas in Desert Center. It concerns every one; the ecology of the whole area is being destroyed. Tractors tear out every plant and tree, leveling every wash and natural watershed. The encroachment of the solar fields has made the environment unsafe and totally unhealthy.”

Others in the group began to research potential issues specific to their community. (For more information about the negative environmental impacts related to utility-scale solar projects in our California deserts, see the Independent’s May 2022 cover story, “Not-So-Green Energy.”) What they found has convinced them that some, if not all, of these RESEZ projects should be stopped, repositioned or decreased in their size by the BLM or the Riverside County Planning Department (which must approve the construction plans as well).

The Lake Tamarisk Desert Resort is being surrounded by utility-scale solar installations. Credit: Kevin Fitzgerald

The issues unearthed by the Lake Tamarisk residents include increased levels of dust containing silica particles and other substances dangerous to human health; a dwindling water supply due to increased solar-company usage of the Chuckwalla Valley groundwater basin aquifer; and the potential for increased local temperatures due to the vast number of solar panels being installed.

Residents are also worried about a heightened potential for wildfires due to the miles of new high-voltage transmission lines built along Kaiser Road, which borders the community; termite infestations caused by the continuing disturbance of the desert landscape around them; and health threats related to electromagnetic fields created by the omnipresent solar panels.

Vicki Bucklin lives on the eastern edge of the Lake Tamarisk community. When she stands on her porch and looks to the east toward Arizona, she sees thousands of solar panels stretching into the distance. Not only is she sad that the beautiful desert vistas she’s enjoyed for decades are disappearing rapidly; an increase in dust exposure is a major concern for her and her mother, who lives with her.

A BLM study from May 2016, titled “Riverside East Solar Energy Zone Longterm Monitoring Strategy Final Report,” states: “PM (particulate matter) sources, associated with solar facility development, include soil disturbances, unpaved road traffic in and around the SEZ, and wind-blown dust during both construction and operational phases.” Later in the study, the BLM states: “PM can cause health effects and environmental effects, which include visibility impairments, environmental damage, and aesthetic damage (EPA 2015a). Health effects include premature death in people with heart or lung disease, aggravated asthma, decreased lung function, and increased respiratory symptoms, such as coughing or difficulty breathing. The groups most susceptible to health effects from PM are the elderly, people with heart and/or lung disease, and children/infants.”

Bucklin said the amounts of blowing dust have already increased significantly.

“The issue about the silica dust is a serious problem that was caused by the solar projects that have already been installed by Oberon and the others, because they’ve defoliated the desert,” Bucklin said. “So when they drive by, the dust comes up. They do water it, but they don’t water it all the time. Now that they’ve taken out the vegetation, there’s nothing left to prevent the dust, and we’re seeing much more dust than we used to see.”

At the entrance to the Oberon solar projects 1 and 2, the sign advises, “IF YOU SEE DUST COMING FROM THIS PROJECTS CALL” (sic) as passing truck leaves a dust trail behind it. Credit: Kevin Fitzgerald

Bucklin and her neighbors are worried about their water supply, too.

A joint BLM and U.S. Forestry Department report from 2021, titled “Renewable Energy Impacts on Ground Water in a Desert Basin,” focused solely on the status of the Chuckwalla Valley aquifer. The report said that 10,257 acre-feet of water were being recharged into the aquifer each year, while the current outflow was calculated at 11,329 acre-feet. In other words, more water is going out already than is going in.

The report continued: “Proposed solar projects in the basin … would extract approximately 12,780 (acre-feet per year) more if construction was concurrent, with total outflow more than double the basin inflow.”

Residents are also worried about the aging state of their community’s water-pumping infrastructure. Some fear that further damage could result from the strain caused by the solar companies’ use of the homeowners’ pumping facilities.

Teresa Pierce, a part-time resident for decades who is now living with her husband, Skip, in their desert home full-time, has become one of the most vocal and active resisters of the solar invasion.

“The biggest issue that we’re facing is the Chuckwalla Valley water aquifer is in overdraft right now, and (the solar developments) are literally pumping millions of gallons of water out of our aquifer, which has no way to replenish itself,” she said. “… We don’t have any rivers or streams. We do have the Pinto basin run-off underground, and one other (potential source), but with the drought situation, they’re not contributing.”

Mark Carrington, Teresa Pierce, Skip Pierce and Lily the dog pose behind their home. The desert land behind them is slated to be turned into a field of solar panels coming within 750 feet of their property. Credit: Kevin Fitzgerald

Another concern among Lake Tamarisk residents comes up in comments written to Riverside County: heat.

Under the heading “Local Climate Effects,” they wrote, “A Physics World article noted how an increase in temperature occurs from the solar (installations). This could be from one to seven degrees Fahrenheit. This has a great impact on not only the people in the community but also the animals and flora and fauna. Higher living expenses will occur with the increased temperature (due to the need for more use of) air conditioning, and for dust abatement.”

Then there’s the issue with the solar companies’ need to install additional large towers along Kaiser Road, the main artery leading to Lake Tamarisk from Interstate 10, to support more high-voltage power-transmission lines connecting the solar projects with the Southern California Edison Red Bluff substation. Already, according to Pierce, high winds have at times caused the existing power lines to sway and touch, causing electric sparking.

Bucklin also said these lines are a potential danger.

“They put new powerlines in all along Kaiser Road. If we have an electrical line break that causes sparks, our water system is not capable of fighting a wind-driven wildfire in this (residential) park,” Bucklin said. “Our fire station here has notified us of that. There’s no above-ground water reservoir, so we have to pump everything—and if there’s a power-caused fire, then the power will be shut off, and we will have no way to pump water.”

Along Kaiser Road in Chuckwalla Valley, high-voltage transmission lines run north to south and present a wildfire threat from sparking potential during wind storms. Credit: Kevin Fitzgerald

Some of these impacts could be mitigated if there were adequate funds available for the community to invest in renovating the infrastructure, which residents admit has fallen into a state of disrepair. But for some time now, the Lake Tamarisk residents have had to rely on funding from Riverside County and the solar companies themselves to put toward infrastructure repairs or upgrades.

An article from The Desert Sun on May 2, 2014, stated that in 2011, the county began collecting fees from each of the solar companies operating the various projects in the Desert Center area. In just three years, the article said, more than $2.4 million had already been paid into the account by just one solar company—First Solar, which owns and operates the Desert Sunlight solar project 6 miles north of Desert Center.

The Independent reached out to Riverside County District 4 Supervisor V. Manuel Perez to inquire about the fees.

“Many counties in California that support solar-energy production are concerned that communities most impacted by utility-scale solar energy facilities may not directly benefit from these facilities,” Perez said. “To address this concern, some counties require and/or encourage community-benefit programs for utility-scale solar energy facilities. Funds collected under these programs are oft referred to as B-29 funds.

“We’ve got to find some balance to this. … I look forward to that scoping meeting … and seeing what it is that they actually want to do to mitigate (the negative impacts) to ensure that we start taking care of people, and not necessarily just focus on the end goal.” Riverside County Supervisor V. Manuel Perez

“There’s about $1 million already which has been re-invested back into that community,” Perez said about Lake Tamarisk. “For example, (they’ve had) the golf course, or the clubhouse, the irrigation system, the water system, and other repairs done in that region. So is that enough? Does that balance things out? I’m not exactly sure. It was pretty bold and creative for the county of Riverside to try to tackle this issue, and we drew a lot of criticism back then.”

Supervisor Perez was not able to immediately confirm the current B-29 fee structure agreed to by the solar companies operating in Riverside County, nor could he say what funds were currently in the account. He did acknowledge that more should be done to stabilize and improve the quality of life for the residents in Lake Tamarisk and Desert Center.

“The (United States Department of Interior) goal is to be 100% carbon-free by 2035,” Perez said. “People want to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions. People want to restrict natural gas. So obviously, there needs to be some balance between conservation and how we use public lands. When we talk about the Department of the Interior, for example, they’re pretty proud of trying to reach those goals by building this type of large-scale solar project producing hundreds of megawatts. Now, as you’re hearing, they’re beginning to encroach on local communities like Desert Center or like Lake Tamarisk … so something’s got to give. We’ve got to find some balance to this. … I look forward to that scoping meeting and participating, engaging with the feds and seeing what it is that they actually want to do to mitigate (the negative impacts) to ensure that we start taking care of people, and not necessarily just focus on the end goal.”

The Independent reached out to Elizabeth Knowles, director of community engagement for Intersect Power—the company that owns the Easley solar project that would come so close to the Lake Tamarisk homes—and asked if IP considered the concerns voiced by Lake Tamarisk residents to be justified.

“Since being made aware of their concerns, we have been in close contact with the Lake Tamarisk community and the surrounding neighbors to understand and address any questions and concerns they have,” Knowles said. “We will continue to work with them throughout the planning, construction and operations of the project.”

That offer of support may not be enough for many of Lake Tamarisk’s concerned residents. Cynthia Walker just put her home up for sale in response to the potential dangers and daily worries tied to the solar projects.

“It’s as if we don’t exist,” she said.

Kevin Fitzgerald is the staff writer for the Coachella Valley Independent. He started as a freelance writer for the Independent in June 2013, after he and his wife Linda moved from Los Angeles to Palm...

29 replies on “Oasis No More: Residents of Lake Tamarisk and Desert Center Worry About the Proliferation of Utility-Scale Solar Installations”

  1. Thank you for your story. My family has lived in Desert Center for 100 years. As some of the first settlers in the region. I’ve been heartbroken to see this development and it impacts my ability to live on our property. I believe strongly in renewable energy, I think every building and parking lot should be covered with solar panels – but these enormous scale projects are destroying thousands of acres natural land. The desert is not a barren wasteland, it’s a delicate balance of plants and animals. These huge installations are clearing everything in their path – thousands of acres bulldozed. There’s got to be a better way.

    1. The Bureau of Land Mangement conducted an analysis a decade ago saying that all the proposed solar projects in the region would collectively use 17,742 acre feet for construction and over 2,500 acre feet yearly for operation. BLM would later retract that because the solar boom was no longer seeing as many handouts and tax breaks, plus transmission capacity has been filled up. But it is 2023, new transmission has been constructed and the wishful promise of battery storage has made the PUC look past the duck curve. As a result, many of those old applications are active again. When First Solar built the Red Bluff Substation, they requested more acre feet of water because they could not mitigate the dust emissions with what they had. For Eagle Crest, BLM and FERC wrote that the aquifer could lower during the initial first phases of the project and also that it will lose 1,500 to 1,700 acre feet through seepage and evaporation. In reading reports, the groundwater has recharge from Ford Dry Lake, but there is great demand in the area for more of these projects. Can you really say increased use will not impact the aquifer? Nextera Energy of course claims that Eagle Crest will not impact the aquifer.

      1. Kevin – you have never provided any evidence that Eagle Crest’s statement that the aquifer will not be affected IN THE LONG TERM is incorrect. Merely saying that it will be affected, over and over, isn’t going to change anything.

        1. John
          This presentation given by BLM’s own hydrologist presented at the Arizona Hydrological Society 2021 Annual Symposium
          September 15th through 17th, Tempe, Arizona stated these facts. The topic of the presentation was Renewable Energy Impacts on Ground Water in a Desert Basin The report clearly shows the decline in the static levels of the aquifer in the Chuckwalla area and the model used showed that it will only get worse. You physically cannot remove ground water from a desert aquifer without declining the water level within the area. The water at Desert Center is carbon dated at 15,000 years and at the state prison at 28,000 years. So just the age of the ground water would show that the recharge rate of the Chuckwalla basin is will beyond human time and any water pumped out and not directly replaced will have a negative impact on the aquifer.

        2. Sure the evidence of cumulative water use for all the projects are in then BLM and FERC reports. Parroting next era energy is not evidence.

  2. I have been an owner in Lake Tamarisk Desert Resort for 15 years and I feel threatened by solar instillations. Certainly our property values will decrease. Some of us are looking for other places to relocate but we are beyond the point of getting a reasonable price for our homes.

  3. This article doesn’t consider any of the counterarguments. For example, it is ridiculous to say that the solar projects are depleting the aquifer. Even if the pumped storage project at Eagle Mountain goes through, that won’t deplete the aquifer. Read the Environmental Impact Report on the project.

    1. Remember that these impact report are written for their clients who are our Federal and State Governments. If there was no declined aquifers and if the well logs showed steady static levels then these reports might be correct. But the facts clearly show declines in the aquifer within the Chuckwalla basin.

    2. It is cutting it quite close – basin recharge is estimated between 5,000 and 13,000 afy and EagleCrest will need 8100 acre feet to fill and nearly 2,000 AFY to maintain. Plus 13,000 af for solar construction and 2,000 for operation and applicatins still coming in. Nextera is a big company and will try to get away with a lot of dirty tricks.

  4. Thoughtful article that brings up several ironic implications. First, residents who have the misfortune of living near a newly built industrial solar project are expected to report dust (health) events — so the project can pump even more groundwater to reduce the dust.? Second, it seems the BLM has adopted the William Mulholland false definition of sustainability. These industrial projects only sustain the corporations that build them and pass the environmental damage to the desert and its communities. Third, take a look at google maps satellite view of the desert southwest, notice all the parking lots and roofs where those solar panels could go.

  5. Not really. I was NextEra’s procurement lead for the Genesis project. We’ve met before.

    Desert Center itself is slated to become a town of 5000 people by 2032. You should favor that plan because orderly and limited growth centered on I-10 and SR-177 will protect all the surrounding desert which Cal Wild would like to become a national monument. No problem as far as water goes for a town of 5000, either. For all the time that Kaiser had an operating mine at Eagle Mountain, there were that many people taking water from the aquifer. So put any new development in the desert at Desert Center, where construction is already permitted by Riverside County and has been for a hundred years, primarily along I-10 and SR-177. Most of the land outside the new town of Desert Center (and the Riverside East solar zone) could be preserved for the new national monument.

    I’ll contact you later because we’re on the same side as far as the national monument plans go, and since Desert Center is the only area in the desert that the county will allow to be developed, you should support that process. And then you will be able to influence it.

    1. So the new national monument you are talking about would not protect any public lands that are not already protected as Wilderness or DRECP Conservation areas. I don’t see how a national monument would protect groundwater resources as BLM does not control groundwater.

      No, I have not heard about 5,000 new people in the area by 2032. Where are they going to live – is this a planned community on private land? I would agree that 5,000 new people would need a lot of water. If this is a big plan, nextera and the other solar developers must be very worried about not having water available for their projects. Do 5,000 new people want to live near these projects?

  6. Kent – we aren’t using the same facts and we aren’t interpreting them the same way. The Eagle Crest EIR was accepted by the regulatory agencies and is the most comprehensive study available re: aquifer depletion. The pumped storage project is stalled for unrelated reasons.

  7. That is my point. The regulatory agencies want these projects, so the reports will be tailored to reflect that. However, the declined aquifers are the only true report that is not controlled by the governments who want the projects. The only way an aquifer can decline is from overdraft of that aquifer. These aquifers are in decline and the data shows that.

  8. I understand where you’re coming from, however having been involved for many years with these specific water issues and this specific aquifer, I also know that your conclusions have been fully considered but not accepted by the responsible governmental bodies.

    I don’t accept the idea that the government is biased in favor of these projects. They can only be approved after years of review and public input, and they aren’t always successful. And the courts are often involved. For example, the landfill project at Eagle Mountain finally died a well-deserved death, but it did take a quarter-century.

  9. Kevin – I’ll contact you via email because you have a major interest in this particular area of the desert. The General Plan is due to be revised this year and it would be good to see what our respective positions are, because I think that they’re pretty close this time around. A small new town at Desert Center, with the understanding that the remaining open desert is to be preserved via a new national monument, is our general approach.*

    Note that construction at Desert Center is currently allowed and has been for a century, and individual projects just require standard review by the Planning Department. Residents of the area expect growth to be inevitable but want it to be controlled and limited, which also benefits the surrounding desert lands.

    * Unlikely that BLM land will be removed from the SEZ, however, unless it isn’t wanted for solar.

  10. John Beach I bet if you lived in the Lake Tamarisk community and retired here you wouldn’t want this any more than we do. We chose to live here in peace and solitude. Now we are surrounded with terrible dust and noise and ugly solar panels. How would you like the same thing in your back yard? I see Nexera/ Athos is proposing yet another solar farm. I talked with the folks that they built around by the date farms and green acres! They hate it and all that barb wire fence and panels within feet of there homes! Shame on them! It’s all about the money and big government over reach! And yes the Aquifer is in overdraft. You can point fingers all you about it but look through our eyes our desert has been raped! The ecosystem is being destroyed!

    1. Teresa –

      I live on SR-177 next to one of the new Athos solar fields. I understand all the issues related to solar because I’ve been following events at Desert Center since the airport was acquired in 2004 by the Chuckwalla Valley Raceway partners, and then from 2011 through 2014, I was the procurement lead for the Genesis Solar Energy Project at Ford Dry Lake. My boss at NextEra in Florida, and to a much lesser extent myself, bought all the material and labor that was necessary to complete the project.

      See comment below re: the “Desert Center 2032” project. We want a ban, going forward, on any more major draws from the Chuckwalla Aquifer, subject to federal and state law, and a permanent cap of 5000 on the year-round population. This is essential and has to be done now – Phoenix is subsiding by up to 3/4 inch per year due to over-pumping of the groundwater, and wells in Tucson have to be drilled 2000 feet down while fifty years ago 800 feet was the norm.

  11. If the government is going to give land use in the desert to solar corporations and cause significant harm to communities there, then it would be more honest to just use eminent domain on the communities. That would require financial compensation to the communities being harmed. And it would more accurately reflect some of the real cost of these desert installations. (Also need to add the costs to desert habitat, endangered species, increased fire risk from transmission lines.)

    Why don’t the industrial scale solar developers build projects at housing subdivisions, shopping mall parking lots, warehouse roofs? That is where the electricity is used and transmission lines already exist.

    1. Kevin –

      Those are all good points but unfortunately that train has left the station. The solar projects are here to stay. Our essential priority now at Desert Center is to prevent any more major draws on the Chuckwalla Aquifer.

      1. That train may have left the station, but it should be carefully noted who supported and allowed it to leave the station. Those who made that mistake should have a significantly reduced role in future decisions about siting solar power.

  12. Excellent points.
    Only the last 12 miles from just East of Corn Springs exit have extensive numbers of protected Desert Wash Woodlands with dense populations of Ironwood.
    If Industrial “Landscape Scale” Solar fields are inevitable in the Chuckwalla Valley, much larger zones to the East of Corn Springs rd are available and make more sense as in the Conservation mandate in the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan (DRECP).

  13. The Chuckwalla Valley is essentially the 400-square-mile Desert Center Area which is located above the Chuckwalla Aquifer. Most of the BLM land in the Chuckwalla Valley that is part of the Solar Energy Zone has already been spoken for, and most of the private land that is suitable for solar power has also been acquired by Athos or one of the other solar projects. That new construction will go on for several more years, but beyond the current dozen or so solar projects, there are not expected to be any more built in the Chuckwalla Valley. (The federal and state governments control that process so there may still be one or two.)

    The critical issue for the Desert Center Area is depletion of the Chuckwalla Aquifer. For more than a decade now, there has been vigorous disagreement between the solar companies and desert conservationist groups about how much water can safely be taken from the aquifer. That question is now, in a sense, moot, because going forward the community of Desert Center does not want any more major draws upon the Chuckwalla Aquifer, period. This proposed ban, subject to federal and state law, is the position of our group “Desert Center 2032” and has just been conveyed to the Riverside County Planning Director for inclusion in the Desert Center Area Plan section of the 2023 Riverside County General Plan.

    Our group also supports the formation of the new Chuckwalla National Monument, and we believe, as a fundamental principle, that desert conservationist groups are valued allies as the community challenges Riverside County to prepare a development plan for the next five years that will permanently cap our year-round population at 5000. That figure is more than 15 times the current population and is consistent with the maximum population of the Desert Center Area during the decades that the Kaiser iron mine was in operation at Eagle Mountain.

  14. That’s a nice sentiment but we’re talking politics here. Look forward, not back. Do you want a ban on any more major draws on the Chuckwalla Aquifer or do you want to harbor hurt feelings forever because you didn’t get your way about solar twelve years ago? Desert conservationist groups on their own can’t deliver that aquifer ban but “Desert Center 2032” can and will deliver, and we actually don’t need your help. But it is in the clear interest of conservationists to work with us to see that the Desert Center Area develops in a manner that is consistent with, and complementary to, the adjoining park and monument. Most people won’t refuse to do that because of water under the bridge, but you might choose to go that route.

    As I said to Kevin Emmerich, we have a common cause here and he can influence the process if he’s interested. Although picking up your marbles and going home may appeal to you personally, politically the “grudge” approach is extremely short-sighted.

    1. Yes, the grudge approach is as short sighted as the profit seeking with no regard for harms to others approach. Another short sighted approach is trading away public lands in order to get a seat at the table of political power — eventually that ends up with nothing left to trade. And another approach to avoid is if someone comes up to you and says you have a choice: you get a kick in the shins or poke in the eye. Just walk away, no point in negotiating on that choice.

      A better approach is to learn from history to avoid making the same mistakes.

  15. Good comment. Be assured that the protection of the Chuckwalla Aquifer is our essential priority. We may have differences about solar, but in January 2023 the solar projects are a reality and the primary focus of our group is the protection of the Chuckwalla Aquifer. Also, “Desert Center 2032” can deal on an equal basis with the solar companies because we understand how they operate from inside experience. Conservationist groups have been at a disadvantage because they don’t know the right buttons to push with the solar companies but we do.

  16. John. If you’re interested in the recharging of the Chuckwalla basin and if you have any political pull, I would enjoy visiting with you about a very simple low-cost solution.

  17. Kent –

    Please contact me at jbeach1950 (at) The “Desert Center 2032” statement of purpose went to the Riverside County Planning Department yesterday morning and is constructed to be attractive to county officials as well as to all those interested in desert conservation and the legends of the old days.

    The Desert Center Area Plan is part of the Riverside County General Plan which will be revised this year, and so it is imperative that the county adopt a provision that there be no more major draws on the Chuckwalla Aquifer, subject to law. We aren’t interested in convincing anyone of the validity of a technical argument – it’s progressed to a political position and is going to be pursued as such.

    County officials know me very well and I am on good terms with the right ones. The County Executive Office, however, doesn’t send me a Christmas card, but that’s not where the political power is.

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