October 29, 2013

Imperial Valley's pact could help save the Salton Sea

Members of the Imperial Irrigation District board of directors, the Imperial County board of supervisors, and other officials commemorate the signing of memorandum of understanding at Red Hill Marina on Oct 24 at the Salton Sea. ( Jay Calderon/The Desert Sun)


Written by The Editorial Board
Desert Sun

The pledge by three Imperial County entities to develop renewable energy projects to generate money for the restoration of the Salton Sea could be a big step. Progress is long overdue in a decades-long debate that has been incredibly frustrating for those of us who see the future of the shrinking sea as the region’s largest pending threat to public health and the environment.

Finally, the Imperial Irrigation District (IID), Imperial County and the Imperial County Air Pollution Control District are on the same page. Representatives last week signed a memorandum of understanding to work together on geothermal and other renewable energy projects, and to work with the state to build transmission lines to bring that power to California’s grid.

A preliminary IID study estimates these projects could generate $3 billion in revenue for restoration projects. That’s three times higher than an earlier estimate and the most significant potential investment we’ve seen yet.

With the closure of the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station, there is a strong need for new sources of power in Southern California. It could be a huge opportunity.

As promising as it may sound, we’re skeptical. Power plants like this take huge capital investments and years to make it through the regulatory process. Even with the state’s mandate of generating at least a third of its power from renewable sources by 2020, the energy market is hard to predict.

Utilities are looking for the cheapest sources of energy available, as they should on behalf of their customers.

If the fracking program approved by the Legislature this year generates the mother lode of natural gas that has been predicted, building transmission lines to reach the remote southern end of the Salton Sea might not be the top priority.

The Quantification Settlement Agreement, the nation’s largest agriculture-to-urban water transfer from Imperial County to San Diego County, takes full effect at the end of 2017. At that point, mitigation flows will cease, which could expose more of the lake bed, allowing fine dust to become airborne in the desert wind and create a health hazard. There is a sense of urgency.

Whether the renewable project can come online and generate a revenue stream within the next four years is a big question.

Assemblyman V. Manuel Pérez’s determination is admirable. He is cosponsoring Senate Bill 760 with Sen. Rod Wright, a Democrat from Inglewood, which would elevate geothermal power in the state’s energy procurement process.

Another bill, AB 177, would direct retail sellers of electricity to adopt long-term strategies to reach even loftier goals for renewable energy — more than half the state’s power by 2030 and 80 percent by 2050.

Both bills are pending until the Legislature reconvenes in January.

Tapping into the sea’s vast potential of geothermal energy also fits with the new commitment to reduce greenhouse gases made by Gov. Jerry Brown, who signed a climate change pact Monday with the governors of Oregon and Washington and the environmental minister of British Columbia.

It is good that the Imperial County power brokers are now united in their Salton Sea strategy. That wasn’t always the case, Pérez said.

“That made it difficult, quite frankly, for folks like myself at the state level to advocate on behalf of our locals here,” he said.

Kevin Kelley, IID’s general manager, said he hopes this show of unity will push state legislators to finally address the plan that was devised by state water officials in 2007 but never voted on.

When lawmakers gather in two months in Sacramento, they should debate serious and swift solutions for the Salton Sea. The folks who live around the sea are committed. They have an aggressive plan of action, although it might be overly ambitious. We may not be able to wait for the geothermal genie to rise up and save us.