Renewable energy development could disrupt productive farmland and kill agriculture jobs in the Imperial Valley, farmers and conservationists argued at a public meeting on the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan.
Unprecedented in scope and scale, the plan lays the ground rules for the next quarter-century of solar, wind and geothermal development across 22.5 million acres of California desert. In Imperial County, it could open more than 700,000 acres to solar and geothermal development – largely on disturbed private land – while designating nearly 900,000 new acres for conservation.
Policymakers and some renewable energy advocates have hailed the plan, which was released last month, as a landmark in the fight against climate change. Others, though, say the desert is being asked to carry too heavy a burden, arguing that regulators should prioritize rooftop solar and other small-scale renewables.
Among the plan’s critics are some Imperial Valley residents who packed Monday night’s public meeting at the Imperial Irrigation District office in El Centro. Carolyn Allen, whose family farms staple crops in the northern end 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, of which Allen is a member – struck a similar note. Tisdale argued 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.
The plan’s proponents have painted renewable energy as an economic lifeline for Imperial County, where the unemployment rate hovers around 25 percent. But commenters Monday night said the plan would eliminate stable, long-term agriculture jobs, replacing them mostly with short-term construction jobs – many of which could be filled by workers from outside the area.
David Smith, technical services manager at Spreckels Sugar Company in 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.
For years, environmental groups have urged regulators to promote development on previously disturbed lands, rather than on untouched landscapes and ecosystems. The agencies that crafted the renewable energy plan largely heeded those calls, proposing many renewable energy zones on private lands that have already been disturbed by agriculture or industrial activity.
On Monday, conservationists criticized the idea of fast-tracking development on Imperial Valley farmlands. Local agricultural fields, they said, provide critical foraging grounds for birds – not to mention produce crops that are shipped around the state and the world.
The Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan does not actually approve any projects. Rather, it establishes guidelines for the regulatory agencies that review proposals, creating so-called “development focus areas” where renewable energy projects would be fast-tracked.
In the Imperial Valley, the Imperial County government would be responsible for approving or denying most projects proposed for private land. Andy Horne – who works in the county’s natural resources development office – said county officials are concerned about developing agricultural land, and that those concerns will be reflected in an 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.
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.
The plan doesn’t include the southern edge of the Salton Sea in a development focus area, even though new geothermal hotspots could emerge as the sea recedes. Unless something changes before the plan is finalized, geothermal projects proposed for those areas would not be fast-tracked – a potential obstacle for Salton Sea advocates, who see new geothermal development as key to funding the sea’s restoration.
Imperial Irrigation District employee Shayne Ferber said the district, which has supported efforts to boost geothermal development, is “generally supportive” of the renewable energy plan. Like most commenters, though, he requested that the 90-day public comment period be expanded – a request that regulators seem likely to grant, since most stakeholders are still wading through the 8,000-page document.
Commenters also criticized the four agencies that crafted 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 – for not getting more input from local residents.
“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.