Monday, February 15, 2010
A recent ruling by a California judge has raised questions about a massive water transfer agreement between San Diego and the Imperial Valley. How could the decision affect the future of the Salton Sea and water supplies in our region? We speak to the editor of the Imperial Valley Press about the top stories in the Imperial County.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. The big news in Imperial County is a ruling that strikes down a landmark pact that includes water transfer agreements between Imperial Valley and San Diego. While that ruling will most likely be tied up in the courts for a long time, Imperial County residents seem most upset about the reaction in San Diego. Not only has the story been under-reported they say, but calls to let the Salton Sea dry up are really provoking anger. With me to talk about that reaction and give us an update on Imperial County is my guest Brad Jennings, editor of the Imperial Valley Press. And, Brad, welcome again.
BRAD JENNINGS (Editor, Imperial Valley Press): Thank you. Good morning, Maureen.
CAVANAUGH: Now, first off, Brad, remind us, if you would, about the key elements of this water agreement.
JENNINGS: Well, the quantification settlement agreement, which we know as a QSA, basically it’s an agreement that transfers conserved agricultural water from the Imperial Valley to the San Diego County Water Authority, the Metropolitan Water District, and the Coachella Valley Water District. So we fallow land here, don’t plant it, let it go dry, take that excess water and transfer that to more urban areas.
CAVANAUGH: So why in this ruling did the judge decide to tentatively overturn the agreement?
JENNINGS: Well, what the judge basically did, there are a number of parts of the QSA and 99.9% of them, as far as the judge is concerned, are fine. The one portion that he had a problem with was the Joint Powers Authority portion of the agreement. And basically he said that with the costs in this thing, the mitigation costs are not in compliance with the state constitution’s debt rules. So basically he’s saying it’s too open-ended for the state. The state may have to pay too much money and so constitutionally he has a problem with it. Now while this is – the actual ruling has not finally come down yet—this is kind of a tentative ruling—the transfer’s still in place and the Imperial Irrigation District and the other partners in this are probably going to obviously file an appeal.
CAVANAUGH: Now when the judge says that he has problems with the state costs being constitutional, mainly those costs are the state forking over some money to actually clean up the Salton Sea.
CAVANAUGH: Now, what are the major problems with the Salton Sea? Why does it cost so much to clean it up?
JENNINGS: Well, you know, the Salton Sea, for people who have been there, you realize that it used to be quite a recreational paradise, I guess, back in the fifties and sixties and maybe early seventies but agricultural run-off, pollution from the new river, which all go into the Salton Sea, have basically started to kind of kill it off. You’ve obviously got some chemicals in there, some things that have caused a lot of algae that kill off fish. And it’s – This transfer of water means less water is going to the Salton Sea, which means the level of water is going down, and as the level of water goes down, that playa is exposed and this is stuff that has been absorbing decades and decades worth of chemicals and all kinds of bad things. So that’s where the Salton Sea is now. It’s in that stage of going down and it needs to be saved because if it is not saved and if all of that dirt and playa is exposed to winds, it could be a disaster for this entire region.
CAVANAUGH: Now I was doing some reading about the responses in the Imperial Valley Press and in other places about some recent editorials written here in San Diego that suggested that perhaps we should just let the Salton Sea dry up and not expend all the time and resources that would have to go into cleaning it up. Why does that make Imperial Valley residents angry, Brad?
JENNINGS: Well, I would say the main reason it makes us angry—and I will tell you that it did make me angry—it’s a shocking lack of understanding of the situation. The Union-Tribune wrote an editorial about this a little over a year ago that basically said the same thing, let the Salton Sea dry up. Recently, we had the North County Times in San Diego County write an editorial which said the same thing, and I’d like to quote from it if I can.
JENNINGS: And when you hear things like this and you live in this county, these are the kinds of things that make our back go up a little bit. And the paper said, quote, since we believe a higher and better use is to move the water conservation in the Valley, the essence of the deal, to the thirsty parts of San Diego County, we hope the appeal succeeds, the judge is overturned, and the Salton Sea is ultimately left to dry up, end quote. So what they’re basically saying is take the water from the $2 billion agriculture industry in Imperial Valley, don’t worry about its future businesses, don’t worry about any development there, we need it because we’re thirsty. And at the same time, you know, just let the Salton Sea dry up because it doesn’t matter. And I think what they don’t understand is if the Salton Sea does dry up, just according to the Salton Sea Authority itself, if it does dry up, it’s going to cause immense problems and not just problems for the Imperial Valley. I mean, we have a letter from Marion Ashley, who’s the chairman of the Salton Sea Authority and she’s also a supervisor in Riverside County, and she said estimates have indicated that the dust from this, if it does dry up, may affect the health of residents from the Mexican Border up to Joshua Tree, east to Phoenix and west to Oceanside.
CAVANAUGH: I wonder, how do you see this legal battle playing out over the next few weeks and months?
JENNINGS: Well, I’m sure what’s going to happen, thankfully it’s not just Imperial County fighting a battle. It seems when we get into these battles, we’re always the little engine that could that never quite can. But, thankfully, you have the San Diego County Water Authority, you have Los Angeles, you have the Coachella Valley involved in this. Hopefully, we will get some agreement, they will get this done. I’m sure that, again, that it will be appealed. During the appeals process, hopefully, they’ll let the transfer continue. The big worry, Maureen, I will tell you, ultimately, we want to keep all the water here in Imperial County.
JENNINGS: But we understand that as the coast needs water and we have water, we need to do something to get that water to them but to insure that our water here is safe. Most people, this newspaper included, believe the QSA does that, it protects our future water rights through this agreement. What our main concern is, if we continue to fight this, if the court continues to go after this, if we go after ourselves on this issue, the federal government could just step in and take most of the water and transfer it. And, of course, that’s not something we want to see happen.
CAVANAUGH: I’m speaking with Brad Jennings. He’s the editor of the Imperial Valley Press. Brad, we have a caller who wants to comment on the Salton Sea problem…
CAVANAUGH: …if we can say. Victor is calling from Jamul. Good morning, Victor. Welcome to These Days.
VICTOR (Caller, Jamul): Yeah, how you doing? You know, I’m kind of involved a little bit where – there’s a lake called Owens Lake. I think it’s off the 395, like northern (audio dropout) up the coast up towards California and it’s had the same problems. If they let, you know, the contaminants – the water went out of this lake and the contaminants, they’ve been – they probably have spent close to a billion dollars because of the contaminants. And the – they’ve went airborne and stuff like that and the lake had dried up. So they’ve got to save the water or save the lake in there somehow.
CAVANAUGH: Victor, thank you. Thank you. That is a comparison that’s made quite often about the – letting Owens Lake up in, I think it’s Los Angeles County or north of Los Angeles County just dry up…
CAVANAUGH: …and the consequences that happened with that.
JENNINGS: Well, you know, the interesting thing for people to note, too, as they’re listening to this and we’re talking about Owens, which you’re right, the mitigation cost, I mean, we’re talking near a billion dollars. The Salton Sea is four times the size of Owens Lake.
CAVANAUGH: Something to consider.
CAVANAUGH: Let’s move on to another story that’s occupying time in Imperial Valley and, quite frankly, is linked very deeply here in San Diego County. Now, the Imperial County Board of Supervisors sent a letter to the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture requesting approval in support of the Sunrise Powerlink. What motivated the county board to send that letter?
JENNINGS: Well, I think the county realizes that this is a future for Imperial County. The renewable energies, we’ve talk about it continuously here since I’ve been here…
JENNINGS: …and I’ve been here almost four years. And we’re starting to see some lights at the end of the tunnel here. They’re getting ready to get construction going on Sunrise finally, after talking about it for years and years and years and going through all kinds of processes, the EIR, etcetera. Also, you know, we have renewable energy projects starting to go in here in the Imperial County. A lot of them are in the planning stages, some of them are being built, and some of them have been built. So this is definitely something the county sees as important and we absolutely agree.
CAVANAUGH: Now one of the things noted in that letter sent to the United States Secretary of Agriculture is the kind of employment opportunities that the Sunrise Powerlink could create in Imperial County. Tell us a little bit more about that.
JENNINGS: Well, any time you’re building any projects you’re going to have construction jobs and they’re going to use local contractors for those things. And it’s not just the Sunrise Powerlink, it’s all of these energy projects that will link to it, so that will provide some temporary jobs but also when these are up and running, they need permanent people there to staff them, to keep them maintained, to run them. So for us, when you’re talking jobs and you’re talking Imperial County, we need them, and so we’re always glad to see that kind of thing moving forward.
CAVANAUGH: Well, then moving on to another area that might stimulate jobs and business in the Imperial County, is the application that Imperial County has made to become a federal recovery zone. What is that?
JENNINGS: Ah, you know, that’s an interesting topic and it’s something that a lot of counties don’t want to talk about. What it basically is, is we’re saying, yes, we need help. We’re saying that, yes, we’re an area that has poverty, we’re an area that has some problems. We need some money. And if you are part of a federal recovery zone, it basically opens up millions of dollars for businesses through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act that we couldn’t get our hands on if we didn’t have that designation.
CAVANAUGH: And at the same time, the board of supervisors in Imperial County wants to basically merge two large enterprise zones in Imperial County to, in essence, make the entire county a state enterprise zone. What, indeed, would that do for the county?
JENNINGS: Maureen, it would do the same thing. Basically it opens you up for grant money, for funds that you couldn’t get your hands on otherwise. I mean we’re a very depressed area when it comes to economics obviously. Our unemployment rate, although down now, is still in the mid-twenty-five percentages or something like that, still very, very high. So this gives us the opportunity to bring in development money that we otherwise wouldn’t have our hands on, and we absolutely do need it.
CAVANAUGH: It sounds like there’s an awful lot of paperwork and red tape involved in that. Would that come down in time to really sort of help during this recession?
JENNINGS: I think so, and any time it can come down, it can help here. Yes, the economy is worse now but, you know, the economy in Imperial County did bloom for a few years but anything that we can do to help us, even if it takes some time to get the red tape done, that will help us and absolutely. So it’s – we believe it is worth it and the County does too.
CAVANAUGH: Well, on a lighter note, February seems to be a very busy month in the Imperial Valley. You seem to have a lot of festivals and other activities going on. Tell us some events that are on the community calendar this month.
JENNINGS: Well, you know, we just had our Mardi Gras celebration, which was in downtown El Centro just this weekend, which is always a wonderful event. I mean, the weather was in the seventies.
JENNINGS: And even in the evenings, it’s shorts and tee shirt weather. And that’s basically bands, music, food, family fun, lots of nice events downtown. We have the Imperial County Fair starting in a couple of weeks, which is always just the best, a very, very good time. It’s a long fair, it lasts a couple of weeks, lots of entertainment, lots of special events for families, a very, very good time. And then right at the tail end of that we have the naval air facility El Centro Airshow, which is always the first performance of the year for the U.S. Navy Blue Angels, who train here in El Centro. And that is free to the public and you’ll see anywhere from 30,000 or 40,000 people out there at that event.
CAVANAUGH: With all the rain that we’ve had, do you expect an early desert flower bloom?
JENNINGS: Probably. It’s been a little too rainy for a lot of us. The farmers don’t like it and a lot of us don’t like it. It’s good for the yard but things seem to puddle up around here when that happens.
CAVANAUGH: Why is February such a busy month for Imperial County?
JENNINGS: The weather.
JENNINGS: That’s the answer. The weather is wonderful. We have winter visitors here. People are a lot more willing to go out when it’s 70 than when it’s 115.
CAVANAUGH: Yes, I can see that. Brad, we’ve covered an awful lot of ground. I want to thank you so much for speaking with us.
JENNINGS: You’re welcome. Thank you, Maureen.
CAVANAUGH: I’ve been speaking with Brad Jennings, editor of the Imperial Valley Press for our Imperial Valley update. And if you have questions or comments, please go online, KPBS.org/thesedays. And, coming up, new ways to go solar in San Diego, that’s as These Days continues here on KPBS.