EL CENTRO – The Coalition of Labor, Agriculture, and Business (COLAB) and the Imperial Valley Vegetable Growers Association, through Executive Director Kay Day Pricola, hosted an Imperial Irrigation District (IID) political forum Thursday evening at the William Condit Auditorium. Four candidates are running in the June 6 special election to replace former board member Matt Dessert.
Candidates Juanita Salas, Blake Miles and John Edgar “Ed” Snively all participated in the forum. Candidate Tony Gallegos was unable to attend.
During the question and answer format, all three candidates said they agreed with the lawsuit IID has filed against California Independent System Operator (CAISO).
“CAISO limits other energy from operating,” said Salas. “The Valley will suffer if CAISO wins and that will make climate change worse.”
“The IID is the balancing authority to set rate standards for power and electric rates in Valley,” said Snively. “If the balancing authority goes to an outside source, rates will go up, with estimates of 30 percent for residents and commercial users. IID power department did a great thing about a month ago. CAISO tried to use our lines without authorization, and the IID said no and stood firm. I applaud them for that. I think this is what it is about. It is unfair for CAISO to use our lines without any renumeration for our district.”
“Someone using our grid without authorization or financial benefit is wrong to the ratepayers who own the grid,” said Miles.
Throughout the forum, Salton Sea issues continued to be an important topic.
“The Salton Sea presents itself as one of the most dangerous things any one here faces in the future,” said Snively. “If something isn’t done, the University of Riverside has made it very clear that the dust from the playa will blow in the air. IID and the county must work together to hold the state accountable, to put forth the money to keep the Salton Sea playa in check. Bruce Wilcox has a good State plan and it’s a start.”
“My emphasis is the Salton sea,” said Miles. “People are very interested in the future of the Salton Sea. It used to be the second most popular tourist attraction in California. We don’t look at the tourism element. The west lake solution is to dam the west side filling it with fresh water and bring back tourism. We need to look at the environmental aspects, but also at economic development. We have sand, sun, and water. It could be the best beach in California. It could bring greater value to those lots surrounding the sea.”
“When I worked for a member of congress, I was able to secure funding, alongside the member of congress, as the person making reports,” said Salas. “I was able to secure funding for the restoration of the Salton Sea. It has gotten us to where we are now. There is a ten-year plan. We had to work across the aisle. IID is making some progress, but not enough. It’s time for us to take action.”
There was unanimous consent by the three candidates concerning agricultural fallowing. They agreed fallowing cost jobs, and they agreed the same problem occurred when agricultural fields were replaced with solar farms. However, the plans on how to spend Quantitative Settlement Agreement (QSA), or benefit money, coming from rural-to-urban water transfers had diverse opinions among the candidate.
The QSA between the IID and urban water districts decrees payment for conserved water through fallowed land and on-farm conservation efforts. Part of the payment has been used by the District to help ‘benefit’ agriculture and non-agriculture enterprises affected by the fallowing program.
“Expenses and revenues, they should, in essence, trickle down,” Salas said. “I believe, being an education advocate, every student in the Valley should have the opportunity to go and get an associate’s degree locally. Those benefits should trickle down to our community and get a further degree. The benefits should transfer over to San Diego State, the benefits should trickle down in that capacity.”
“There would be no benefit QSA money if there wasn’t water,” Snively said. “July 1, fallowing is over; 21,000 acres goes back into production. Those funds should be on-farm conservation, funds to help with major water conservation systems such as pump-backs and drip irrigation. The benefit money should help pay for mandated conservation programs of the QSA.”
Miles reiterated that the problem with fallowing was the 2,000 jobs lost when fields were not planted. He said choosing who gets funds does not make up for the lost jobs. With fallowing ending, jobs will come back, he said. “It all comes back to our economy. Our property values are lower without employment or water, there is no value in our property. The funds came from water, and they should go back to water.”
Concerning the IID and unions, Snively said unions protect employees, they are a bargaining tool for them and it is a fact of life, a part of doing business.
Miles mainly agreed, saying they have a definite place protecting employees, but he warned about giving unions a free hand in bargaining because wages could rise enough to give rate-payers higher bills.
Salas held the strongest pro-union stance. “I have historically been a member of the union through my family. Unions are ratepayers and voters. I am lucky to be a daughter of three generations of United Farmworkers Labor union. Unions are the great makers of our great middle class. I wouldn’t be running for the IID if not for the unions. I think when we talk to them, we need to pay livable wages, give them a 40-hour work week, I definitely believe unions should be a part of the IID.”
Another area of agreement concerned the placing of solar farms. Each candidate said they did not like to see farm land taken out of commission for solar energy when desert land was available. However, Snively did mention he liked the constructive idea of putting solar farms around the Salton Sea playa as a way for the renewable energy firms to do double duty of creating energy and keeping the toxic dust of the sea settled.
One of the questions from the audience dealt with helping the underserved in the Valley.
“What’s good for Calexico, is good for Imperial. What is good for Holtville is good for Brawley,” Snively told the room. “We must work together instead of being divisive. We have lower rates than most other electric areas, and that is the best way to help the underprivileged.”
Salas said she had dedicated her life to the undeserved, the environment, and to transportation. As an example, she cited the 2010 earthquake.
“I brought FEMA and the State to the Valley. I stood up and was the Phoenix in the fire. Everything I have done has been for the benefit of the community. I have not had a private business, I have not earned millions of dollars selling homes, I have not done anything to benefit my pocket. I am a working-class individual. I am here to represent our community,” Salas said.
Miles noted the Valley has the lowest medium income in California. “We have an Arizona- like economy but have to work under California rules made by people in urban areas. I have been in underprivileged homes, (and) our economy is a real problem. When we make decisions on the board, we have to keep the widow in mind, and the farmworker in mind.”
The candidates were asked about California’s plan for saving the Salton Sea.
“I am the only candidate who has been involved in these conversations for the last 10 to 15 years,” Salas said. “I feel the state must fulfill its obligation. It is not only a local issue, it’s a county issue, it’s a state issue, and it’s a national issue. It affects neighboring states. The IID and County work with one unified voice and when I join the board, we will continue to speak with one unified voice. The plan is a start, not a solution. We must voice our opinion. This is an environmental justice issue. We must demand the state get involved and we must show up in Washington D.C. If we have to, we will get FEMA involved and the California Natural Resources Board. I plan on being that advocate, raising my voice and making this an environmental justice issue. Because we need to bring national attention to this and I plan on doing just that.”
“I have been involved with the Salton Sea since I was fourteen — that might beat Miss Salas’ 10 or 15 years of involvement,” Miles answered, touching his gray hair. “One of the methods I advocate is Save Our Seas, with Kerry F. Morrison, executive director. Instead of being a victim, he has had fun, brought music artists down. We can run the Whitewater River along the shores to bring fresh water into the sea. We need to look at the positive and return the sea to its days of glory. The proposed ponds help, but I am concerned we are not looking at the economics of the sea. It could be the best beach in California.”
“IID needs to bring the talent we have here in the Valley,” Snively said. “The (California) plan spends $400 million dollars, but only $80 million has been allocated, and the State will take 20 percent for overhead. There is no continuing method of funding and that must be changed. As far as the playa is concerned, $14,000 an acre to plow up Yuma beds, so the dust won’t blow? I’m good on a tractor, I drove a tractor when I farmed. I know it doesn’t cost $14,000 an acre to pull up Yuma beds, those who farm know that. We need to figure out ways to get on it. Red Hill project is supposed to be started and it is not.”
Salas was asked more individual questions than the other candidates, with many questioning her claims on her webpage and another questioning why her four years at Planned Parenthood was not included in her biography. Salas explained that the IID race was about water and power, therefore her job at Planned Parenthood didn’t pertain.
One questioner asked about the 3,000 miles of drainage and open canals and how would each candidate make the water potable to rural homes.
Salas told of being at another forum where one of the IID board members said it was not the IID’s call to make water clean. “I completely disagree with that. Because the IID is the organization entrusted with delivering the water. The board member said the cities were in charge of that, but what about the people that live out in the country? We need to hold someone accountable, either the County or the IID to make the water clean. Our residents deserve clean water.”
“IID has been challenged by the EPA about delivering potable water,” Snively said. “The IID is not in the business of delivering potable water. They deliver water to the cities, and the cities filter the water for their residents. If you make the decision that IID is responsible for delivering potable water, the cost is unknown but will be substantial for the ratepayers. The EPA has tried to force the IID, but the IID has prevailed.”
Miles said they used bottled water when they lived in the country. “It is a tremendous cost to deliver potable water. EPA forces people in the country to have treatment systems of their own,” he said.
The three delivered their closing statements to a packed auditorium.
Moderator George Nava read the rules and questions and David Canez Jr. was the timekeeper.