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Swiftwater Solar Settlement: A win for all in the Poconos

by Emma Bast, Staff Attorney

PennFuture and Brodhead Watershed Association (BWA) are pleased to announce that we have reached a settlement with the developer of the Swiftwater Solar project and the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) that protects the water quality of Exceptional Value Swiftwater Creek, while allowing the Swiftwater Solar project to go forward and increase the supply of renewable energy in Pennsylvania, creating green jobs and growing the green economy.  


Why this outcome protects the environment: 


  • The settlement creates a true “meadow condition,” using a warm-weather meadow seed mix, which will maintain the water conditions that flow to Swiftwater Creek, Scot Run, and Dry Sawmill Run.  
  • Swiftwater Solar will not only use low-impact construction practices, but will also do multiple decompactions of the soil throughout the construction. This will allow for stormwater infiltration across the whole site, mimicking the forest conditions that are there now.  
  • Testing requirements are in place to ensure that the target conditions are being met. 
  • Swiftwater Solar has improved the design of its stormwater basins and integrated environmentally sensitive design principles, to ensure that the basins will continue to function into the future.  
  • Solar field development can be a lower-impact use, in terms of permanent impact to natural lands and resources, than other types of development that require roads, parking lots, and installation of other permanent impervious surfaces. 



As we explained in a previous post, the proposed Swiftwater Solar project in the Poconos, is an 80-megawatt solar field that will generate “grid-scale” renewable energy, meaning that rather than go directly to a particular user (as a rooftop solar project might), this energy will be drawn on as part of the larger electric grid.  


In July 2022, DEP issued water quality permits to developer Swiftwater Solar for its proposed solar facility sited at the top of Bear Mountain in Pocono Township. The project requires the clearing and regrading of approximately 500 acres of woodlands, which drain into Exceptional Value Swiftwater Creek and High Quality streams Dry Sawmill Run and Scot Run. In August 2022, PennFuture and BWA filed a lawsuit against DEP and developer Swiftwater Solar, because the permits issued did not ensure that the water quality of these special protection waters would be protected from the degrading impacts of the project. The settlement resolves these issues and closes out the case. 


It is important to remember that Swiftwater Solar was determined to be a “Major Essential Service” under the local zoning ordinance by the local Planning Commission. As a result, the solar field is a permissible use for this property and would be built. However, a permissible use is not a blank check to develop without any regard for the surroundings. PennFuture, BWA, Swiftwater Solar, and DEP worked together to reach a plan that would balance the water quality protections with the solar development itself.  


Fluffy soil is key: 


A critical factor in this case was ensuring that the “hydrological condition”—basically, the way that rain and snow infiltrate into the ground, and then filter into the surrounding streams—of the site would be maintained. A key principle is to have soil that is not compacted, but is soft, with lots of space between the bits of dirt in the ground (the technical term is “pore space”). Think of it like a loaf of bread: wonderbread is even and smooth, while an English muffin has those nooks and crannies. In uncompacted soils, when it rains or when snow melts, the water has lots of places to go and filters into the ground before eventually making its way into a nearby stream, pond, or other waterbody. When soil gets really compacted, water just runs straight off the surface, bringing sediment and other pollutants along that can harm pristine waters like Swiftwater Creek. To maintain the hydrological condition, we needed the site to maintain (where possible) and restore (where necessary) that soft nooks-and-crannies type of soil.  


Clearing forests is concerning because forests are recognized for being great natural filters and protectors of streams, and this is because they create conditions that slow down rainwater and reduce surface runoff in a couple ways. First, the trees, shrubs, and groundcover all help physically slow down the rainwater as it reaches the ground. Then, the root systems of all these plants, which can run very deep, help to keep the soil in a relatively “fluffy” state, with the “nooks and crannies” mentioned above.  


However, forests are not the only thing that can do this well. A true meadow, one seeded with native plants that vary in height and have high resiliency, can also be a great filter for stormwater in the same ways that forests are. Now, the term “meadow” can be tricky because it is a word that has both a technical use but is also is often used casually in a number of different ways. A farmer might think of a hay pasture meadow, seeded with grasses for yield and nutrition. A biologist might think of a grassland meadow where plants are allowed to flower, grow, and self-seed without grazing. And most average people might simply think of a lush field of grass and maybe flowers, without worrying about what kind of grasses or flowers they are. But the composition is important to the performance, and the plants that grow above ground also affect what is happening below ground, and what happens when it rains and storms. Consider the average lawn: a uniform, non-native grass that is kept at a consistent short height does not do a great job of creating space for water to infiltrate.  


So here, where the goal is to create the kind of meadow that protects the soil and natural resources, we needed to be sure that what was being installed was the kind of true meadow. 


In the end, Swiftwater Solar agreed to a number of changes in its construction practices and its restoration practices that will achieve this. First, they will use low-impact construction equipment wherever possible and work to minimize the amount of compaction of soil. Second, the site will have multiple levels of decompaction, to ensure that the soil is restored to a fluffy state that allows infiltration across the whole area. Swiftwater and DEP agreed to testing protocols, to ensure that there are some simple metrics for accountability. Swiftwater Solar will also use specialized seed mixes that balance the need to use the right plant species for the area with the height requirements of the solar panels themselves.  


Environmentally sensitive designs are a win-win: 


PennFuture and BWA also fought to incorporate environmentally sensitive design principles, to ensure that the final design would be long lasting and resilient. Swiftwater Solar and DEP agreed to some modifications of the site design of the infiltration/stormwater management basins that were planned to ensure this would happen. It was crucial for us that this project’s stormwater management be designed with an eye for the generations to come, not only the short term.  


The result of integrating these principles is that the development’s stormwater basins will have better water flow management, improved plant selection for the landscaping, and maximize use of bio-friendly building materials. This means that the seeds for the final planting are chosen with the long-term use in mind, whether it is the wetland-like conditions at the bottom of the basins, or the dryer, steeper sides of the basins. The basins will be planted with willows, which will improve infiltration and discourage invasive plants. And these modifications are win-win, because they also lower the maintenance burden for Swiftwater Solar and DEP.  


Final thoughts: 


While PennFuture is firmly in the business of advocating for clean energy and Pennsylvania’s transition to a clean and just energy economy, we also strongly believe that transition cannot come at the expense of other natural resources. So often, the environment is just a small slice of the pie, and we are asked to divide it into smaller and smaller slivers between us. It is a bad approach. We shouldn’t take natural resources away from each other; what should be stopped is reckless development and things that deplete the environment altogether, like spec warehouses that are paving over the state, fossil fuel buildout that wreaks our air and water, or urban sprawl that introduces traffic and buildings to the places that most need protection.  


The settlement is an example of how clean energy can be developed in harmony with consideration to the natural resources. While PennFuture hopes that future grid-scale solar can be sited with more consideration to low-impact solar siting considerations, such as DCNR’s 2022 recommendations, we also hope that this can be an example of how grid-scale solar can also be responsibly built to protect natural resources.  

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