The Planning Board should deny the Tracer Lane solar project, which endangers a major water supply and destroys scarce forest.

Solar electricity is critical for achieving greenhouse gas reductions at the speed and scale required to meet the climate crisis. But it would be a mistake to think that a solar project endangering a vulnerable water supply and destroying scarce forest land is necessary or justified. There are feasible, affordable solar alternatives that don’t harm the environment, water quality, and public health that depends on clean water. For all the reasons mentioned below, the Lexington Planning Board should deny permission for the Tracer Lane Solar Farm to move forward.

The proposed 1 megawatt project would occupy 5.3 acres of steeply-sloping forest land a mere 400 feet from the Cambridge Reservoir, the primary drinking water supply for 120,000 residents of Cambridge. Installing the solar arrays would tear up one of the few remaining tracts of protective forest that once surrounded the reservoir.

Such forest is “the first line of defense for protecting water from degradation and maintaining high quality drinking water.” Its layers of foliage, leaf litter, and deep roots act as a natural filter, a buffer to pollutants, and a barrier against erosion that degrades drinking water.

The harm from removing protective forest is worsened by the steep slope, which increases erosion. The proposal also allows prohibited discharges to flow into the protected “Zone A” abutting the reservoir. These are among the many objections the Cambridge Water Department has raised against the proposal.

According to Mass Audubon, Massachusetts natural lands are disappearing at a rapid rate, and ground-based solar was responsible for up to 25% of the loss. For this reason, Mass Audubon and other environmental groups urge that solar not be sited on forests, farmland or natural open spaces but rather on pre-existing development — namely rooftops, parking canopies, and degraded lands.

These safe forms of solar should be expedited. One way to do so is described at Solarize Mass, a Mass Clean Energy Center program that supported community campaigns for rooftop solar, including aggregate purchasing to lower costs as well as financing options. Over a decade, it produced more than 25.6 megawatts of solar electricity, doubling rooftop installations in participating communities.

This is the direction we need to move — and fast. The Lexington Planning Board can avoid a dangerous misstep by denying a permit to the ill-conceived Tracer Lane solar project for a myriad of serious water quality, health, and environmental concerns.

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  1. Forests contain huge amounts of CO2. The older the ecosystem, the more CO2 they contain. Destroying the forest would release all that CO2 back into the atmosphere.

    Forests and bodies of water also provide other ecosystem services, upon which humans other animals, and the biosphere depend, including clean air and clean water, pollination, moderation of weather, biological diversity, and much more.

    Massachusetts is the third most densely populated state, after New Jersey and Rhode Island, a condition which adds to the importance of preserving this forest.

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