Thursday, July 9, 2009
We know it is definitely hot out there right now...but how is Imperial County being affected by the state budget crisis? Why aren't residents in Brawley and Calexico facing mandatory water restrictions this summer? What's the latest news on the construction of the Sunrise Powerlink? We speak to Brad Jennings, editor of the Imperial Valley Press, about the top stories in the Imperial Valley.
ALAN RAY (Host): You're listening to These Days on KPBS. I'm Alan Ray, in for Maureen Cavanaugh. You just heard the weather forecast in the Imperial Valley, this weekend up to perhaps 110 degrees. In San Diego, we could see the mid-eighties. So how come we get the water rationing and they don't there? Well, let's find out. Brad Jennings is editor of the Imperial Valley Press. And among the top stories certainly has got to be, around the rest of the state, Brad, water rationing, but apparently you folks planned early enough well enough that you don't have to worry about it.
BRAD JENNINGS (Editor, Imperial Valley Press): Well, we always worry about it. Water is one of those things that's a constant around here, just like the heat. You're talking about how warm it's going to be this weekend. You know, we still need our water here. Most of our water, of course, though, 98% or so, is for agriculture. But they do plan. The local irrigation district here plans, farmers plan. They're actually right now kind of looking at all the water supplies, kind of mapping everything out, how they use it, where it goes, and through those kinds of things and through planning, that's how they save water. And the thing is, is the water that's saved here, the concern is always is it going to be piped to somewhere else? So that's always something to consider.
RAY: Now, is there the possibility, even if you don't have restrictions, that you might see some increases in water rates particularly, say, for agriculture which is really water intensive?
JENNINGS: Well, that has been discussed and that's a good question. It's been discussed here because the rates that ag users pay is much lower. Right now, agriculture pays about $17.00 per acre foot for water. Municipal water rates are about $68.00 an acre foot. The Imperial Irrigation District had looked at increasing those water rates. There was a protest that and the finally tally hasn't come through on the protest vote yet but it looks like that protest may have failed. And if that did fail and they can prove that conclusively, then the IIP could certainly raise the rates for agricultural. And they were talking about raising those from $17.00 an acre foot to about $20.00.
RAY: How dependent are you in the Imperial Valley and how dependent on northern California water is the Imperial Valley irrigation system?
JENNINGS: Not at all. Our water comes from the Colorado River.
RAY: Okay. So you don't have to worry at all about the possibility of a peripheral canal or anything like that.
JENNINGS: No, we don't. Yeah, everything that we have comes from Colorado River to our east.
RAY: Okay, let's take a look at the larger statewide issues because we're looking at a budget crisis now unresolved, the third budget crisis, by my count, of this year. How is that affecting Imperial County?
JENNINGS: It's affecting us greatly. I'm surprised you don't want to just talk about Michael Jackson for the next 10 minutes because it seems like…
RAY: Was he up there?
JENNINGS: No. But that just seems like that's sucking up all the oxygen with the media right now instead of this issue. And I'm glad you brought it up because it's so excessively important. I mean, just recently the Calexico Unified School District had to layoff employees and one thing is, they're not getting as much money from the State. We're looking at that across the board. Our county right now has not even completed a budget, which it should've had a budget by the beginning of July. They haven't done that yet and probably won't for a couple months because they don't know what they're going to get from the State. The cities are concerned, the County's concerned, school districts are concerned. Our local university's concerned. The money is really, really drying up and they're not sure what the State's even going to do. So that is certainly having repercussions here. And in the meantime, in Sacramento, they're just kind of bickering and not even showing up to meetings.
RAY: Now talk a little bit more about the state money particularly as it affects public health. I know there's a substantial public health burden in Imperial County.
JENNINGS: Yeah, there is. You know, all I can tell you is right now things are on hold and that's a major concern. You know, the County is not sure how it's going to fund everything. Because of the way the economy is, obviously, the taxes that the County's bringing in have gone down. You know, our housing market is still bad. Unemployment is still high, so all those things are having a direct effect on the County coffers. So we're not sure how it's going to affect healthcare or any other programs yet. It could be very bleak, especially if the State doesn't start getting something moving soon.
RAY: Well, we see the State having problems but a lot of the problems the State's having are actually reflected nationally.
RAY: So talk a little bit about the national economy and the effect on what had been a very promising renewable energy industry in the Valley.
JENNINGS: Yeah, that's a good question. You know, it's this perfect storm of bad things happening economically and they certainly hurt us here. You know, we've kind of gotten this moniker as the poster child for the recession, which is – some of it is possibly a little fair but most of it is unfair. But one thing it certainly has done is hurt us in the renewable energy area because renewable energy, certainly that is going to be a boon for us in the future. There are, you know, besides solar projects and, you know, all kinds of different things we can do here, right now nobody is developing. Nobody is building. There were a lot of projects that were kind of on the pipe that they wanted to get done and that stuff is all just kind of been pushed to the wayside because, you know, there's not money for them. And developers are concerned and they're a little worried about that. Geothermal's been proven here but they don't want to have new plants online yet because nobody's giving the loans. And, you know, it's just having a lot of affect here.
RAY: Well, there's a real circularity here too because you already have one of the highest unemployment rates in the country. With the prospect of renewables coming in, that looked like you might get some jobs but that's not going to happen.
JENNINGS: It's not going to happen at least initially. And, you know, those projects take a while anyway, even in the best case scenario. When you – by the time you get environmental impact reports and all the state regulations and any lawsuits that might come up, it would take a while anyway but those are definitely stalled for sure. And also, you know, when it comes to our unemployment rate, it is high. It's in the 25, 26%, something about right around there right now. But that's high and it's even high for the Imperial County but this is the time of year we see these kinds of things fluctuate. You know, we have a pre-farm based economy. We have a lot of migrant workers that come in and out, so our unemployment rate certainly fluctuates up and down. I would say the extra few percentage points higher now really has to do with nationally that's hurting us, construction, those kinds of things.
RAY: Okay, we talked about renewable energy. How about the more standard energy? SDG&E, are they expanding at all in the Valley?
JENNINGS: Well, what they're looking at doing is this green path that we've been talking about now for decades, I think. And it looks like they finally want to start breaking ground, hopefully, later this year and really get it moving – really get it moving and start the actual building process next year. Now we've talked to SDG&E a number of times on this project and they've bought the metal. They've bought the steel. I mean, they – they're already buying the materials they're going to need to build this thing. So they definitely have a higher profile here in Imperial County. They don't – You know, we have a different power provider here, so they don't provide power for us here but they're certainly becoming a player and they've actually opened a local office as well.
RAY: Okay, there's an organization, a nonprofit group called Citizens Energy. Talk about that.
JENNINGS: Yes. Well, Citizens Energy was started by Joe Kennedy, Jr. and it's a Boston-based company. And basically what they do is, they get into energy projects. You know, they put money at that for development and then they take profits from that and they help low income people with energy problems. For example, in this green path project, Citizens was kind of in the project and then publicly they were kind of out. Well, they've been talking to San Diego Gas & Electric about this all along so they're actually going to partner with SDG&E on this Sunrise Power Link and they're going to pay for about half of the line that's running into Imperial County. Now they will obviously sell off that energy. They will make money on that. And what they're going to do with that money is they're going to put it back into Imperial County to help low income people. I think not only to help them, you know, pay power bills, which as I'm sure you could guess are exceptionally high around here in the summertime, but they're going to teach people, you know, how to conserve energy, how to go green, how to do lots of different things like that. So it's actually a really good project and it's a good program for this community that certainly has a high number of low income people.
RAY: Now we hear a lot here, in the San Diego area, a lot of criticism of the Sunrise Power Link and that sort of thing. Do you hear that same kind of criticism in the Imperial Valley?
JENNINGS: You know, the only real criticism – You did, yes. But the real criticism is let's get it done, let's get it moving. You know, the State set these guidelines to have certain percentages of green energy and we've just dilly-dallied on this thing forever. I think what we want here is we want the lawsuits to end, we want the thing to get built because, hopefully, that would – we need the lines out of here before we can really build a lot of these green energy production facilities. So I think for the Imperial Valley, getting this line built is very, very important.
RAY: It does sound like it would be a win-win for San Diego Gas & Electric and the Imperial Valley.
JENNINGS: It would. And I think it would be a win for everybody in the state because, I mean, this line—while there are some concerns that SDG&E could carry some brown energy from Mexico through these lines—they are really targeted at green energy and renewables, so I think that's a positive thing for everybody.
RAY: You mentioned some cutbacks already in the public schools because of State financing problems. Is anybody looking down the road and suggesting that the schools, which were already in some difficulty in the Imperial Valley, might actually have more problems?
JENNINGS: No, I don't think so. I think this is just one of those cyclical things where funding is going to cause problems. We still have student enrollment growth. So it's just going to be a temporary fight and a push. You know, you're going to have employees that are concerned, you're going to have parents that are concerned but I'm sure we'll get through it. I haven't heard anybody talking long range problems as far as trying to consolidate or those kinds of things.
RAY: A lot of people going back and forth across the border. And I'm wondering if there is, with the increased economic troubles there, are you getting any sense of greater tension?
JENNINGS: No, none at all. And, you know what, it's interesting that, you know, because we are on the border and Mexicali is such a large city, over a million people, just south of our border here, they're great for our economy. Mexicali is wonderful for our economy. You know, we have a nice mall here, some nice shopping, and that's because of Mexicali. So when you go there on the weekend, if you can – get in your car, turn the air conditioning on quickly, drive to the mall, get out, run into the mall because it's air-conditioned, it's full of shoppers. And I think we have a very good relationship. It's very easy and very comfortable.
RAY: San Diego State University has an Imperial Valley campus. That has a story.
JENNINGS: Yeah, it does have a story. This has kind of been an interesting story, too. I think people here are concerned that the San Diego State University campus in San Diego really wants to exert a little too much control over the campus here. And this has been a real back-and-forth. Faculty members are concerned about it, the community's concerned about it, the students are concerned about it. They're talking about getting rid of some different programs and things the campus has. So they had this task force that got together to come up with recommendations. Well, the task force just recently released their report and, you know, we have to say it's pretty vague. It's not really strong. But some of the things in here are kind of concerning, including one of the things that they want to do is try to encourage and facilitate transfers from the Imperial Valley campus to SDSU. Well, of course, we don't want to lose a lot of students from our campus here to the campus at SDSU because that could lead to losing more faculty, that could lead to losing more students, obviously. So that's something we don't want to do. And there also seems to be a little difference in numbers here. They're talking that – One of the big concerns from faculty has been they've lost a lot of positions.
RAY: Now you say they've lost a lot of positions, are these…
RAY: …tenured faculty?
JENNINGS: Yeah, these are – absolutely, faculty positions. The…
RAY: So how are they losing them? Are these people just quitting or are they being laid off?
JENNINGS: Well, that's the question. Some of them are leaving but the positions are not being refilled. The college itself is saying that they've lost, you know, six people since 2004-2005 but actually the faculty did a little study and they said they've lost 12 positions in that same time. So obviously there's a big difference in numbers here. This is something that's going to continue on.
RAY: Is there the thought that if they're not replacing tenured faculty, they may just be trying to starve the campus?
JENNINGS: Yes, that's exactly right. And that's obviously a big concern not only for the tenured faculty members, it's a concern for students, it's a concern for parents, it's a concern for all of us.
RAY: Now San Diego State University in San Diego is actually a sizable employer. Is that the case in the Imperial Valley?
JENNINGS: No, the campus here is still fairly small but when you start losing programs and the faculty is being downsized, you worry that it might shrink even more.
RAY: You talk about business and the economy, business, you go to the malls and business is still pretty good there.
RAY: How is housing going right now out there? I know there was some high foreclosure rates for a while.
JENNINGS: Yeah, and there still is. You know, I think we're going to see that probably continue for a while. There's a lot of foreclosures. We're getting a lot of short sales. I think there is some pick up in that type of market. But, you know, we're holding pretty steady. I don't think it's getting any worse. But it's getting better but probably very, very small increments.
RAY: Okay, I got to ask you, looking at 110 degrees for the weekend as a high temperature, almost no place to get out of the sun except to go to the mall and shop, what do you do in the summertime in the Imperial Valley?
JENNINGS: You can do everything that you do anyplace else without the beaches. You know, we do everything. We go to the bowling alley and bowl. You know, last weekend, believe it or not, I played in a ping-pong tournament in somebody's backyard when it was 110 degrees. You just try to drink a soda and cool off and jump in the pool when you can and if it gets too unbearable, you just get in and sit in the air-conditioning.
RAY: And buy stock in a sunscreen company.
JENNINGS: That's exactly right.
RAY: All right, Brad Jennings, thank you very much.
JENNINGS: You're welcome.
RAY: All right, Brad Jennings is editor of the Imperial Valley Press, talking about the top stories in the Imperial Valley this week and, certainly, the state's budget is a big one but also water and the fact that they're not looking at mandatory water cutbacks. You're listening to These Days on KPBS. I'm Alan Ray, in for Maureen Cavanaugh.