A Packed Forum about Solar Field Location Points to Valley Concern

John Renison Chairman of the Board introduces the DRECP
John Renison Chairman of the Board of Supervisors

EL CENTRO –Farmers and conservationists argued at the Bill Condit Auditorium Monday, October 20 concerning the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan (DRECP), stating renewable energy development would disrupt productive farmland and kill agriculture jobs in the Imperial Valley.

The strategic plan, released last month, outlays the regulations for the next 25 years of solar, wind and geothermal development across 22.5 million acres of California desert. In Imperial Valley, more than 700,000 acres of disturbed private land (farmland) is open to solar and geothermal development, while designating nearly 900,000 new acres for conservation.

Lawmakers and environmentalist have endorsed the plan as helping to stop the advancement of climate change, while those that live in the valley say the farmland is having to bear the brunt of solar fields, arguing that lawmakers should focus on rooftop solar and other small-scale renewables.

The plan’s critics packed the hall, many which were Imperial Valley residents. Carolyn Allen, part of a three generational family that farms the northend of the valley, said the renewable energy plan would be “devastating to our local economy.”

“The precious farmland that we have down here should not be industrialized for so-called green energy projects,” Allen said.

Donna Tisdale — president of the grassroots group Backcountry Against Dumps, spoke likewise, arguing the plan would turn Imperial County into a “renewable energy sacrifice zone.”

“Designating most, if not all, of Imperial County’s irrigated farmland as a development focus area is, in my opinion, inappropriate, unconscionable, disproportionate, and outright exploitation of one of the nation’s most productive breadbaskets — and also one of the most socioeconomically vulnerable areas,” she said.

Proponents for the plan stressed the economic lifeline renewable energy would bring to a valley burdened with a perpetual 25% unemployment rate. Countering the argument was that solar takes away permanent, good agricultural jobs for a solar field that hires temporary, outside labor only to build the facility, then jobs go away. Additionally the solar fields only have a 30-year life-span, some even disputing that figure in the intense desert sun.

David Smith, technical services manager at Spreckels Sugar Company outside Brawley, said his company opposes converting farmland to renewable energy zones. Even removing a few acres, Smith said, “can create the economic tipping point that forces competitive, efficient enterprises such as ours out of business.”

“While we all support renewable energy, the future of agricultural in the Imperial Valley is at stake, as are the economic futures of Imperial Valley workers and businesses,” he said.

Historically, environmentalists have pushed for solar and other renewable projects to be built on land already disturbed, such as farmland, rather than disturbing untouched, undisturbed desert land. Their arguments had great weight in the planning of the future design for renewable energy plants in the Imperial Valley.

At the meeting, farmers, conservationists, and ag-related businesses condemned fast tracking the development on Imperial Valley farmlands. Local agricultural fields are critical foraging grounds for migratory birds, besides feeding the world, especially during the winter months, many argued.

The Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan offers guidelines for the regulatory agencies that review proposals, creating so-called “development focus areas” where renewable energy projects would be fast-tracked.

The County Board of Supervisors has the final say in approving renewable energy projects and whether they would be constructed on viable farmland.

Andy Horne, Deputy County Executive Officer, said county officials are concerned about developing agricultural land, which will be reflected in the upcoming update to the county’s land-use plan.

“We’re looking very hard at the opportunities that might exist at the Salton Sea — not only for energy development but for conservation,” Horne said. Last legislative cycle, the County and the IID had lobbied tirelessly for the passage of SB 1139, a bill that would have enabled geothermal plants to be built along the receding shoreline of the Salton Sea, a plan that would have brought millions to the Imperial Valley and a plan thought to help mitigate the exposed shoreline and the health hazards created when the wind disturbs the chemicals exposed by the receding sea.

The geothermal-rich area surrounding the sea would not be included in the fast-track plan preferred by the regulators.

Under the plan’s “preferred alternative,” which has served as the starting point for public debate, a wide swath of land across central Imperial County is designated for development. To the east and west are proposed conservation lands, designed to protect fringe-toed lizards, shorebirds, burrowing owls and Swainson’s hawk — among other species.

The preferred alternative leaves the Imperial Sand Dunes, which are already designated for recreation, mostly untouched. It also proposes designating the Ocotillo Wells off-highway vehicle zone as a dedicated recreation area, which would be protected from renewable energy development.

Local residents also complained that the four agencies that drew up the renewable energy plan, the federal Bureau of Land Management, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, and the California Energy Commission, did not confer with local stakeholders.

“If you took the time to talk to some of the people that have either lived in the area or had to move away from the areas around the solar panels because they were just not livable anymore, or the farmers that have been affected by having their fields adjacent to huge solar projects, you would see that it is just very, very destructive,” Allen said.

Regulators will hold nine more public meetings on the renewable energy plan over the next month, including one at UC Riverside’s Palm Desert campus at 4 p.m. Friday, Nov. 7.

If you would like to contact or receive more information on the DRECP you may contact them at (866)674-9996 or email at drecp.info@energy.ca.gov