Eastern Kern County Resource Conservation District airs concerns over massive solar energy and water project during City Council meeting
Editor's Note: This story has been updated to include timeline information provided by Kern County Planning.
A planned solar and water banking project in neighboring Fremont Valley found itself before the Ridgecrest City Council on Wednesday as local conservation district directors called for action.
Donna Thomas of the Eastern Kern County Resource Conservation District brought information and letters of opposition to the council regarding the Fremont Valley Preservation Project.
"I think this project has effects even up here in Ridgecrest, and we are encouraging people to write letters about it," Thomas, the president of the conservation district said.
The Fremont Valley Preservation Project is a massive 4,000 acre solar energy and water banking project, which is estimated to generate 1,008 megawatts of solar energy for Los Angeles County.
The water banking is what has most people on edge. The draft EIR proposes drawing up to 114,000 acre feet, of water per year from the local groundwater sources. An acre foot equals 325,851 gallons of water or liquid.
She said the massive project, which includes a draft environmental impact report totaling nearly 8,000 pages with appendixes, has drawn complaints from residents in the Fremont Valley, including the area around Cantil.
Fremont Valley itself is located mostly in Kern County's Second District, but borders Randsburg in the Indian Wells Valley.
Thomas said that the conservation district board has read as much of the draft EIR as possible and have met frequently to discuss response.
She said the water banking element of the project includes 1,800 acres of percolation ponds, 40 injection wells to inject water into the local aquifer and 40 wells for drawing native groundwater from the aquifer.
"That is our major concern, the use of the native groundwater, and take it out of the jurisdiction of Kern County," Thomas said. "The proponents of the project can do this by getting a conditional use permit (from the county) and the water can go wherever it wants within California."
Thomas added that there is no storage to bank water as of yet. This is reflected in Kern County Planning's notice of preparation project.
"If they don't have enough banked water then they will make it up from the native groundwater, so for me this is not truly a water banking project," Thomas said. Instead, she said, it appears to be mining of local water from Fremont Valley.
"I think if the Indian Wells Valley ever wants to consider doing a water banking project of any sort, we should be doing the right way — with putting surplus water into the system when you have a surplus and pulling it out when you need it," Thomas said. "Not annually every year."
Thomas added that there are air quality concerns as well, especially with disturbing of soil during the construction phase. She said those concerns included San Joaquin Valley Fever.
Sophia Merk, another director for the Eastern Kern conservation district, said that letters have been sent to the county and to its Board of Directors, including First District Supervisor Mick Gleason and Second District Supervisor Zack Scrivner.
The conservation district is planning for a bus to pick people up to attend the Dec. 3 Board of Supervisors' meeting in Bakersfield to voice theri concerns. Merk added that it would be beneficial for the supervisors meeting to be televised so people can comment on the matter remotely.
"There are people that are 80 or 90 years old and they have their whole life up there," Merk said.
Ridgecrest Mayor Dan Clark proposed that the city draft a response regarding its posture on the Fremont Valley project.
Councilwoman Lori Acton, well-versed in the situation given her onetime role as field representative for past First District Supervisor Jon McQuiston, said she would write the letter, but pointed out that comment period to the county planning commission had ended Nov. 18.
"We can write but they may not respond," Acton said. She said that the council should send a letter sooner rather than later, adding that she had already sent one personally.
Vice Mayor Chip Holloway said the best way to approach things is to send a letter saying the city "is entitled to more information" before the project is finalized.
On Monday, Lorelei Oviatt, the county's planning director, stressed that the board will not take any action on Dec. 3, as the it needs to go to the county planning commission first.
"No staff report or presentation materials have been provided to the Board so they will not be informed about the project," Oviatt said in her email.However, the response to comments will be available online by no later than Dec. 3 and mailed out to those who responded.
The Clerk of the Board's office will have a link to the planning department's staff report on the matter, Oviatt said by email, "which is asking for a continuance to the Feb. 25, 2014 Board hearing" on the project.
A staff report is expected to be made available on Dec. 9 for the Dec. 12 Planning Commission hearing.
Additionally, Oviatt is scheduled to make a presentation to the Ridgecrest City Council at its Wednesday, Dec. 18 council meeting. Kern County Planning is also arranging two public workshops in the Cantil/Randsburg and Ridgecrest/Inyokern areas in January, though dates and locations have not been established yet.
Oviatt added that “all comments provided will be provided to the Planning Commission if received before Dec. 12 and all will be provided to the Board of Supervisors which, at this time. will consider the project on Feb. 25, 2014.”
Information on the Fremont Valley Preservation Project can be found at http://pcd.kerndsa.com/planning/environmental-documents/324-fremont-valley-solar-deir.