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Imperial Valley Tribes Oppose Sunrise Powerlink

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On the eve of his departure from office, California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger applauded one of his signature projects: The Sunrise Powerlink. The massive energy transmission line has garnered many opponents, among them Native American tribes.

— On a sunny, warm day in the Imperial Valley desert, hundreds of energy executives and state officials waited for the governor to show up at the Powerlink headquarters in Boulevard, California.

Schwarzenegger appeared 20 minutes late, glowing with pride over the Sunrise Powerlink - which he sees as one of his top achievements in public office.

"This is why it is important," said Schwarzenegger, linking the power line project to his green-energy agenda for the state. "The Sunrise Powerlink will carry 1,000 megawatts of clean energy to San Diego; enough power to power 650,000 homes."

But outside of the gate, dozens of protesters booed the project and its promise of green energy. They held signs criticizing San Diego Gas & Electric and its parent company, Sempra Energy.

A few feet away, David Elliott of the Manzanita band of the Kumeyaay Nation spoke at a makeshift podium. Elliott opposes the 117-mile, 500-kilovolt mega project, which is slated to circumvent delicate desert and forest terrain to bring energy to San Diego. Most of that land, he insists, is peppered with ancient burial grounds and artifacts.

"My main concern is the cultural burials that are out there," says Elliott, referring to the entire Imperial Valley region. "We've been asked to survey thousands of acres. Where's the footprint for the proposed towers or lines or roads? All these things that they're going to put out here for the line? When we ask that question, they say, I don't know."

The "they" that Elliott referred to is SDG&E and Sempra, along with other subcontractors who have been surveying the land for over five years and applying for permits from the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forestry Service.

The land that will be crisscrossed by the Powerlink is culturally and spiritually significant to other tribes such as the Cocopah, Quechan, Mojave and Hulapai. The area is also home to the Golden Eagle and the endangered Bighorn Sheep, and sensitive desert habitat.

"As far as this being green energy, I don't see that at all," says Elliott. "The turbines, they cause noise problems, disrupt the animals, visual blight in this pristine back country, they come apart from the high winds. And of course, all these wind companies, and solar companies, and geothermal companies have sprung up because SDG&E is going to put a line through this area."

No doubt there's an energy development explosion going on these days in the Imperial Valley. Dozens of projects have popped up throughout the desert, promising jobs and green energy for Southern California and even neighboring Arizona.

Art Larson, a spokesperson with SDG&E, says the criticism is misguided and adds that the Powerlink is following all the rules.

"The licensing and approval project for the Sunrise Powerlink was the most comprehensive ever completed on a power line in California history," he says. "It included five years of testimony, hearings, public meetings, formal environmental review, and proposed alternative decisions on the project."

Bill Powers is a San Diego-based environmental engineer. He believes San Diego could generate power on rooftops - in its own backyard.

"That same technology can just as easily be put on rooftops and in parking lots right where it's used," says Powers. "And you don't need 400 miles of transmission to get it there."

Powers has challenged the project on the grounds that it harms the tribes in the area, destroys an important ecosystem, and gives too much power, literally, to investor owned utilities.

"These projects are more expensive, more resource intensive," he says. "And yet the U.S. government is throwing billions of dollars that we do not have at obsolete technology that is doing permanent damage to pristine areas of the desert: it is the perfect storm."

That storm has been brewing for years. But until very recently, the concerns of Native American tribes from the Imperial Valley were overshadowed by the purely environmental opposition to the Sunrise Powerlink.

Just days before the groundbreaking in Boulevard, President Barack Obama settled an historic lawsuit filed by various Native American tribes 15 years ago - a settlement on royalties for oil, gas, grazing and timber rights. To David Elliott, that settlement was largely symbolic.

"All the resources that have been extracted from the Native American lands over the hundreds of years - there's no amount of money that the government can give those people, our people, or certain individuals would ever be able to repay what they've taken out," says Elliott. "And you look at the amount of time that it's taken to even come to this point."

But looking ahead, many tribal members throughout the Imperial Valley see legal action as the only way left to challenge the Powerlink.

A Federal judge recently granted a request by the Quechan Tribe to stop work temporarily on a solar-energy project connected to the power line. The injunction represents an important precedent to tribal lawsuits over land management in the region.

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