The nation´s need for renewable energy and a refuge´s need to maintain its mission recently converged in southwestern Nevada, and a satisfactory agreement was reached.

Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge is an anomaly: an oasis of spring–fed wetlands in the Mojave Desert. Even more unusual are the plants and animals that have evolved there. Scientists have found 26 species that they believe exist only on or near the refuge.

So, when the Bureau of Land Management notified the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in early 2009 about a right–of–way application to install a solar array on BLM land 10 miles from the refuge, Service and National Park Service staff took a careful look at how the project might affect the refuge and its resources. Most concerning was a proposed wet–cooling system that would consume 4–500 acre–feet of water per year. (The average household uses 0.5 acre–feet of water per year.)

"Ash Meadows is really about water, from the fish to the endemic plants," says refuge manager Sharon McKelvey, explaining that a drop in groundwater levels would imperil the refuge´s rare and endangered species. Among Ash Meadows Refuge´s endemic species are at least 10 freshwater snail species, aquatic beetles and a variety of listed native fish—all dependent on warm springs from a deep aquifer. The area´s high water table sustains endemic plants that have adapted to dry, alkaline soil.

The endangered Devils Hole pupfish´s sole natural habitat is Devils Hole, a water–filled abyss on Park Service land within the refuge. The fish spawn on a rock shelf near the surface and are vulnerable to water–level shifts.

In coordination with BLM and the Park Service, the Nevada Fish and Wildlife Office (ecological services) negotiated with the renewable energy company, Solar Millennium. Eventually, the company agreed to use a dry–cooling system that would consume much less water—about 400 acre–feet per year. Even then, negotiations surrounding the project´s water use continued, explains Amy LaVoie, then the deputy assistant field supervisor for Service ecological services in Nevada. Ultimately, Solar Millennium agreed to increase its water rights acquisition—with a portion dedicated to conservation, to ensure a net–neutral effect on groundwater.

Partnerships Are Key

Solar Millennium´s Amargosa Farm Road Solar Project will produce 500 megawatts of solar energy—enough to power 150,000 homes. The Department of the Interior cites the project as a model of collaboration in its initiative to increase large–scale renewable energy production on public lands. Negotiators from the Service and other DOI agencies recognized their roles in supporting the initiative as they worked to find solutions for all parties, says LaVoie.

Partnerships were a key to the negotiations, McKelvey says. She was familiar with regional federal and state land managers through the Desert Managers Group. Many shared the refuge´s concern over water, and the Service was able to tap the expertise of Park Service hydrologists and others, she says. LaVoie stresses the importance of getting to the table early on a project. A project in its final hour of approval is difficult to alter, she says, but by knowing about this one early the Service was able to help negotiate substantial changes.

Biologists, hydrologists and land managers had to give themselves a crash course on solar technology so they could discuss alternatives. "The more educated we became, the better positioned we were to protect the refuge and Devils Hole," LaVoie says. "There are many different types of solar technology, and it´s important to understand how they work on the ground and how they could affect wildlife." Keep in mind, she says, that companies often have niche technologies and may resist using other technologies.

Learning about solar technology clearly is time well spent. The demand for solar energy is growing with the nation´s need to produce domestic energy and address climate change. Beyond the Amargosa Farm Road Solar Project, applications were filed for eight other solar projects within 20 miles of Ash Meadows Refuge in 2010.

Kendall Slee is a Colorado-based freelance writer.