L.A. Department of Water and Power Project Stirs Old Tensions

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A new power project is stirring up old tensions between Los Angeles and those who live as far away from the city as they can get. "Green Path North" will bring renewable energy from the Salton Sea to L.A. But its transmission lines have Morongo Valley communities seeing red. The L.A. Department of Water and Power re-launched the project with a public workshop last weekend. KPCC's Molly Peterson went to Yucca Valley to take a look.

Molly Peterson: The survey markers popped up in Morongo Valley last January, aluminum disks set in concrete, smaller than a CD, engraved with "Los Angeles Department of Water and Power." Austin Puglisi figured out they marked transmission line right-of-way the DWP wanted from the Bureau of Land Management.

Austin Puglisi: (rustling map) My land borders BLM land for about half a mile here. And there's BLM land to the south of it. And they asked for all of these. They're either going to come to the east of us, to the west of us, or through us.

Peterson: It's a hundred degrees at 5 p.m., and when Puglisi turns a hose on a creosote bush, a black-throated sparrow swoops in. He bought 55 acres over a ridge from the 32,000 acre Big Morongo Canyon Preserve.

Puglisi: This is a desert plum, right here. Some of those wide yucca rings are probably four or five-hundred years old. And some of the larger creosotes that are starting to ring are likewise.

Peterson: Three years ago, DWP announced "Green Path." The transmission lines would bring clean power west from geothermal and solar plants near the Salton Sea. But Puglisi says he and others in the desert couldn't find out much about Green Path's actual path. Three months ago, the DWP dug out the disks, and now says it has no preferred route for Green Path. Puglisi doesn't believe it.

Puglisi: Well, I'm going to lose my dream because we searched far and wide for a unique property, and we found it, and we were already starting to build.

Peterson: Puglisi says he can't understand why the DWP didn't show up before the Green Path markers did. Riverside County planner Mike Shetler wonders the same thing.

Mike Shetler: Potentially it looked like the transmission corridor could impact the multi-species habitat corridors that we've worked for almost a decade with the cities of the Coachella valley to develop.
Peterson: The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power didn't talk to the county directly?
Shetler: No, they did not.

Peterson: Last month, the DWP filed paperwork to look at six possible routes for transmission lines. That's what DWP boss David Nahai wanted to talk about in Yucca Valley last Saturday.

David Nahai: Hi, my name is David Nahai.
Voice in the crowd: Oh no!
Nahai: Oh yeah! (laughter) This is going to be fun today. I serve as the general manager of the L.A. Department of water and power. (crowd boos)

Peterson: Desert dwellers wore red, and were seeing it. One handmade sign said, "You lie, Nahai." In a packed high school gym, he offered an apology.

Nahai: To all of you who felt violated by the appearance of those markers, I want to offer my own personal, sincere apologies – even though (applause) even though, when I did become GM, I ordered all of them taken out.

Peterson: As a DWP commissioner, Nahai approved some actions for Green Path. As general manager, he says he's pulled it back. He pledged an open process from now on.

Nahai: Nothing has been decided. Nothing is preferred.

Peterson: Nahai tried appeasement. He hugged a woman who cried as she brought forward photos of desert lands. But April Sall, the head of the California Desert Coalition, an umbrella group formed against "Green Path," reminded Nahai not to take desert communities for granted.

April Sall: The department has a reputation for steamrolling communities in small rural areas, and we have a lot to protect here, and we have a lot to fight for.

Peterson: Nahai said DWP will consider technology to take lines underground where possible. Desert residents cheered for power lines along I-10. Edison manages that corridor. It's a tricky route. The freeway's lined with homes. DWP estimates up to 3,500 could be affected. And I-10 runs near the forest. That's a fire risk. A frustrated Nahai said, more than once, DWP is trying all options.

Nahai: This is why we're meeting with Edison once a month! To see if we can get through the I-10 corridor! If we can get over the challenges of it, right, of course we will!

Peterson: Nahai's got other challenges, too. Nearly half of L.A.'s energy comes from coal. That has to change under the state's greenhouse gas goals. The city's got its own goal to more than quadruple renewable energy in 12 years. Nahai says Green Path can and must balance competing values.

Nahai: I ask you to recognize that our cause is just. And I believe, that if we work together, we'll be able to both protect the environment globally and protect it locally.

Peterson: Public meetings and environmental review will soon get underway. But with more power projects planned in the state's open spaces, the Green Path may not be a lonely one for long.