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 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.”
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.”
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.”
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.
“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.