Not satisfied with merely repurposing an entire mountaintop to build a dam 50 years ago, the United States Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) and the Dry Creek Rancheria Band of Pomo Indians agreed to transform the plateau above Lake Sonoma into a solar field to supply their facilities with the bounty of the sun.
Rancheria Chairman Harvey Hopkins met with San Francisco District Commander Lt. Col. John Morrow and chief of USACE San Francisco District operations Mike Dillabough Nov. 10 to sign a memorandum of understanding, granting the Pomo access to 290 acres of plateau land above the lake for the construction of solar panels, with easements for building power lines to lead up to the panels.
“These are our ancestral lands,” Hopkins said. “This guarantees that no new projects will be built around Lake Sonoma and it’s a great way to provide power to the hatchery.”
Planned in the 1960s and completed in 1983, USACE used material from the top of the surrounding mountainside to create a dam to deter flooding and provide a place of waterborne activity for the local residents. The resulting plateaus became a wildlife preserve for Peregrine Falcons, which at their lowest numbered two known birds. “Nowadays, the Peregrines are off the endangered species list, and the nesting areas are far away from where the solar panels are being built,” said park ranger Brian Emmons.
The construction is a two-phase process where 40 acres of land generate five megawatts of power, to be distributed evenly between the Lake Sonoma fish hatchery, visitor center, office buildings, restrooms and tribe-owned buildings in Dry Creek, which include the River Rock Casino, the Dry Creek administration building and the fire house.
While current power estimates for USACE and Dry Creek Rancheria total eight megawatts, phase 2 production plans to make the remaining acreage available to construct additional solar cells that produce a total of 10 megawatts. “This part is just to try out the process,” Hopkins said. “We’re not sure how much power we need, and this is a good way to provide clean power a little bit at a time until we have as much as we need.”
Dillabough looks forward to a cheap source of renewable energy to power the hatchery. “Right now, it costs $200,000 per month to keep the hatchery powered 24/7,” he said.
Excess power beyond the requirement of the hatchery, Lake Sonoma visitor’s center and the Dry Creek Rancheria diverts to other USACE buildings as needed. “This agreement is another example of the great partnership the San Francisco District and the Dry Creek Rancheria have built the past few years, which includes fish habitat restoration, cultural preservation, tribal education awareness and now environmentally friendly renewable energy,” Morrow said. The solar project is part of the United States Army’s plan to incorporate 25 percent renewable energy in their infrastructure by 2025.
“This is the best possible thing we can do with that land,” said Dry Creek Rancheria spokesman David Hyams. “The hatchery gets cheap power and the Tribe benefits as well. Plus, you won’t even see the power cells from the visitor’s center.”
Alisto Engineering, the tribe’s energy consultant in the project, expects proposals from solar companies within three months. Alisto’s senior program manager Rinaldo Veseliza expects solar energy to power Lake Sonoma’s visitor center by spring 2015.