When the Well Runs Dry

If you drive through Mesa Verda in the desert of southeastern California, you get the sense that not much has changed in a long time. Along with a coffee shop, the only other businesses in town are two gas stations serving the freeway. Most of the town’s 2,300 residents have long depended on low-paying jobs in neighboring citrus orchards. Trailer homes, worn with age, sit in the middle of dirt fields behind broken-down fences. Although it’s California in 2002, some residences lack even the most basic services — like delivery of clean water.
Maria Luisa Garcia, a six-year resident, daughter of farmworkers, and president of the Mesa Verde Organizing Council, jabs her finger against the car window. “You see these houses right here?” she asks. “They don’t have water.” She describes how one resident, an old man, must haul a bucket to his neighbor’s tap to fill it with the murky stuff that passes for potable in this desert town. Especially in a desert, life hinges on water. Turning the car around, we drive slowly to Mesa Verde’s sole hold on life — an unimpressive, mid-sized community well, protected by a barbed wire fence. The water quality is poor, but it’s all the residents have. “Don’t even think about drinking the water,” Garcia says. “Sometimes it will be OK — it’ll smell bad and it’s really brown. But sometimes it will be worse.”
A few miles away, where pocked, gravelly roads give way to county- maintained asphalt, workers are constructing a machine that residents say could threaten even that well’s meager supply. Two gas-fired turbines, each as big as a yacht and housed in what looks like an airplane hangar, would produce 520 megawatts of power when the plant known as the Blythe Energy Project (BEP) is complete. The plant, approved in 2001 over the objection of residents like Garcia, would emit hundreds of tons of pollutants annually, including tiny particulate matter that would be easily breathed into the lungs of any nearby farmworkers and residents. The plant would also cool its two giant turbines with 2,200 gallons of water per minute, drawing from the same aquifer that the old man down the road uses for water to brush his teeth. In 2000 and 2001, Garcia and a woman from the surrounding community led the opposition to the approval of the plant, concerned that families could go thirsty and citrus orchardworkers jobless. [See Terrain, Summer 2001.]
But the California Energy Commission (CEC) rammed the plant through in the throes of the power crisis, promising that any damage would be mitigated. Now developers have applied to build a second, identical plant at the same site, using the same method to cool the turbines. “They’re taking our water,” Garcia says, anger showing on her face. “And water is the essence of life.”
Under the dilapidated trailers in the stark, dry landscape of Mesa Verde is something that turns the area into a desert gold mine for power companies — natural gas pipelines. High-pressure gas lines run under homes and fields, the only indication of their presence small orange signs that warn passers-by from digging.
The political pressure to build plants like Blythe’s came more than a year ago — amid spiraling prices and blackouts, now widely regarded as the result of manipulation. According to Portland energy consultant McCullough Research, whose work has provided the basis of Congressional investigations into energy “gaming,” California’s five largest energy suppliers had 50% of their power off-line from June 2000 to June 2001, triple the national off-line average from 1996 to 2001. Artificial  or not, the crisis is over, and conservation measures appear to have taken hold. Between May 2000 and May 2002, weather-adjusted peak energy demand decreased by 4.9%, according to the CEC.
But that hasn’t stopped the commission from approving plants. According to its own records, the CEC has never turned down an application for a new power plant — and Blythe was no exception. After several ownership changes since its application in 1999, the Blythe Energy Project is currently owned by Florida-based FPL Energy; Caithness Energy, LLC, based in New York City; and Louisville, Kentucky–based Summit Energy Services, which had an ownership interest from the start.
Mesa Verde sits about 60 miles north of Mexico on the Arizona border. On the state line, a power plant in Mesa Verde would have easy access to several different “grids” to which to sell the power generated. The farther power travels, the more is lost. But the Blythe area is just four hours away from metropolitan Los Angeles, a lucrative power market.
“Blythe isn’t unique,” says Robert Looper of Summit Energy, the project manager for BEP. “It’s one of many desirable areas where you might want to build a power plant to service the load in San Diego and Los Angeles, where you have air quality problems.”
Another factor in Blythe’s favor, according to Looper, is its remoteness and demographics. “That’s why we located this in the desert,” Looper continues. “You try not to locate these in the middle of communities.”
But Mesa Verde is a community, says Garcia, and that’s the part that makes her livid. “You wouldn’t see a power plant in the middle of Beverly Hills,” she charges. “That’s just the reality of it. They come and build these power plants where they think people don’t have a voice. They come to these underdeveloped communities and dump these industries.”
A report issued last year by the San Francisco–based Latino Issues Forum supports Garcia’s concerns. The Forum studied the locations of 18 proposed new power plants, most of them peakers — small, especially polluting power plants approved on a 21-day expedited schedule in the wake of last year’s power crisis. The report found that 89% of these plants, specially exempted from state-mandated environmental reviews, were located in areas where “more than 50% of the population is people of color.” And of those groups, Latinos were “highly over-represented in the populations living near these plants.”
In a gas-fired power plant, the most important maintenance task is keeping the turbines cool — if they overheat, they can not only lose efficiency, but also be damaged. Developers can be required to cool turbines with fans, a technology known as dry cooling. In 1999, the CEC approved a plant in Sutter  County similar to Blythe’s, but community leaders insisted that developers spare the local water supply by using dry cooling. In that method, extra equipment is required and fans draw their power from the turbines, cutting into profits. By far, the cheapest coolant is running water — and that’s what the CEC is allowing for Blythe.
In the desert, where temperatures top 105 degrees in the summer, water is liquid gold. Mesa Verde’s aquifer was hit hard during the 1970s and 80s by heavy agricultural usage, and the water level never fully recovered. The BEP plant approved by the commission would use 3,000 acre-feet of water per year — nearly as much as the entire agricultural use of water on the local mesa, which hovers around 3,700 acre-feet now. Once the water’s usefulness in cooling the turbines is exhausted, the contaminated outflow would go to evaporation ponds, not back into the aquifer. And no one, not even the regulators responsible for approving the Blythe Energy Project, knows for certain what the effect of additional pumping on the recovering aquifer would be.
Maria Luisa Garcia is not alone in her concern over the possible effects of the power plant on the fragile desert community. The question of the future of Mesa Verde’s water has also caught the eye of a schoolteacher with two disabled children in nearby Blythe. Carmela Garnica is no stranger to activism; her father was prominent in the United Farm Workers union during Cesar Chavez’s time, and he seems to have passed his legacy down to his daughter. In 1972, Garnica helped found an alternative school for Chicano students who felt that discrimination ran unchecked through the area’s school system. At 16 years old, she participated in a 15-day hunger strike that mirrored that of Chavez (it also nearly killed her). Nothing, however, could have prepared Garnica for the dizzying process of seeking to halt a power plant’s progress in front of the California Energy Commission — a challenge that had never before been successful.
Garnica became an intervenor in the Blythe Energy Project, a status that allowed her to become a third party in the California Energy Commission’s siting process. As an intervenor, she would be allowed to ask questions of CEC staff and the power plant applicant during the hearings, and could litigate if the final decision was not acceptable to her.
Although she was concerned about the particulate matter like nitrates and sulfates that would form from the plant’s emissions, Garnica says she was mainly interested in challenging the BEP’s water usage. The owners of the BEP predicted a negligible one-foot lowering of the aquifer, while the two CEC hydrologists said that the level could decrease as much as 19 feet and could have an impact on small, surrounding wells, including the ones used by Mesa Verde’s residents and its surrounding orchards.
Garnica did not have the funds to hire her own hydrologist to conduct tests on the water levels, and could only offer objections to the potential harm of the plant. “If I know that kids [in Mesa Verde] are going to be without water,” Garnica says, recalling her motive as intervenor, “and moms aren’t able to get up in the middle of the night to make a bottle for their kids because the Blythe Energy Plant took the water, I’m not going to stand for that.”
She was assured in hearings that if the aquifer did drop low, the company would pay to dig residents’ wells deeper, if necessary. Unconvinced, Garnica pressed the matter until, in one hearing, the presiding officer requested that she move from the topic.
The CEC does accommodate laypeople interested in its processes, says Paul Richins of the CEC. “If [the lay intervenor] is not represented by an attorney, [the commission] will give the citizen slack because they don’t know all the rules. [The commission] is not going to throw out stuff on a technicality. We do want public input.”
But during the 14-month siting process, many documents were available only in English, including the pivotal final staff assessment of the project — a hardship, Garnica says, for the majority of Mesa Verde residents who speak nothing but Spanish. And some meetings that could have been held in Blythe were instead held 600 miles away, in Sacramento, despite Garnica’s repeated requests to hold them on site. “People from Blythe have the concerns, and they’re the ones who are going to be impacted. And farmworkers make minimum wage, and work six or seven months out of the year. So you can’t just take a plane and leave your family. It takes a lot of planning.” Even so, Garnica and a group of Mesa Verde residents, including Maria Luisa Garcia, made a 12-hour bus trip to Sacramento for the final hearing in March 2001, hoping for one last chance to be heard.
In all, Garnica attended nearly a dozen hearings, workshops, and meetings from the time that she filed to become an intervenor in the case in September 2000, until the CEC made its decision in March 2001. During those six months, Garnica says that she found a disturbing pattern of treatment by the energy commission. She claims she received no notice of at least three pre-vote meetings between commission staff, the applicant, and its attorney. (CEC project manager Lance Shaw said that, except for one developer-initiated meeting, Garnica should have received mailed notices to all meetings.) She was often presented with technical answers she could not understand. And at one point, when she asked that the plant be placed at a nearby site on a different aquifer, she was told to produce the engineering studies to support her claims. Garnica was flabbergasted. She didn’t even have the money to hire a lawyer. “We’re a low-income family with two disabled kids,” Garnica points out. “A lot of our survival skills just go to that.”
In its official statements, the CEC claims that intervenors can be any kind of citizen. “It doesn’t say in there that I need to be an attorney, or a hydrologist,” Garnica says. “It doesn’t say in there that I need a team. And it doesn’t say that if I object to something coming to my community, that I need to have all those expertises in one.”
As Bradley Angel, executive director of Greenaction, a San Francisco-based environmental group, put it: “Unless you have an army of lawyers well-rehearsed in communication rules, you don’t even have a chance [in front of the commission].”
If Garnica wanted to hire someone with that expertise, she would have to dig from her own pockets — the CEC does not fund indigent citizen intervenors. The agency provides only a public adviser to explain CEC regulations and provide administrative filing help, not help with substantive issues.
Instead, the resources go toward helping the power plant applicant. It’s not surprising that the agency has never turned down an application for a new power plant. According to Paul Richins of the CEC, there are no filing fees for the energy company. The company pays nothing to file an application for a new plant — nor for the staff who review the application and prepare the assessments. And the eventual permit for building the power plant is, you guessed it, on the house. That’s not to say that it isn’t a costly process; Richins estimates the CEC spends an average of $750,000 per plant — money that comes from a few cents’ surcharge on everyone’s electricity bill, which funds the CEC.
Even a former CEC commissioner, Michal Moore, has denounced the process. In response to a CEC staff report that concluded that “the public generally supports” the siting process, Moore presented the commission with a blistering seven-page indictment in March 2000:
“I consider the system employed today to be hopelessly flawed, biased largely in favor of a single factor — getting an application in and out of the Energy Commission in the short amount of time called for in the statute — one year,” Moore wrote. “All this occurs using the worst possible combination of information gathering techniques, which ignore real cumulative regional or statewide issues, blur important costs and interrelationships with other agencies, and make the process of certifying a new facility a virtual crap shoot for the presiding member, who at the end of the process is left with no real decision other than ‘approval’ with various ranges of mitigation measures that can be applied.
“We need to recall that our process should not only serve the applicant and the staff — who ostensibly represent the public — but the affected public itself.”
In Blythe, that affected public included more than just Garnica, Garcia, and other concerned residents. Even local boosters of the plant had problems in the end.
Leaders from the neighboring city of Blythe had wangled a deal with the BEP owners that gave the city an option to purchase 50 megawatts directly from the plant, rather than continuing to buy from Southern California Edison. That way, city leaders reasoned, the city could set its own rates for power and emerge from under the high-priced thumb of the utility.
It turned out to be an empty deal.
In September 2001, Governor Gray Davis put the kibosh on such direct purchases so they would not compete with the utility companies bailed out by the state. The other option, forming a municipal utility district, is an arduous process that could take years. And while the company touted the new jobs that the plant would bring to the area — almost 400 construction jobs and 20 operational jobs — the company only hired 80 people who lived within 40 miles of the plant. Those who landed the highest-paying jobs moved temporarily to the area, according to Quenton Hanson, executive director of the Small Business Economic Development Center at the nearby Palo Verde College. Hanson said he could not break the numbers down further by city to determine how many Mesa Verde residents, if any, got construction jobs at the plant.
Despite not knowing the exact effect that BEP would have on Mesa Verde’s aquifer, in March 2001 the CEC approved the application. CEC hydrologist Linda Bond says that, although it was in the CEC’s purview to require the company to dig test wells to gauge the plant’s impact, the commission determined that computer modeling was sufficient to predict drawdown. “Putting in a well is an expensive proposition [for the company],” Bond says, noting the company’s concerns. “If the commission had decided that the power plant [required] dry cooling, they would have wasted $50,000 to $100,000.” To make up for any impacts on the aquifer, the company promised to drill surrounding wells deeper — or have the well pumps lowered — if the water level dropped by more than five feet during the plant’s 30-year life. The company predicted it wouldn’t come close to that mark. But the CEC’s own computer modeling had already indicated that drawdown would reach 5.7 to 19 feet, which could further reduce the supply and burn out pumps, Bond said. Instead of requiring dry cooling, however, or insisting on mitigation up front, or even requiring the test well before giving the green light, the CEC granted the permit. That allowed the company to dig its expensive well with approval secure in hand. The CEC did require that, before the plant went on-line, the company would have to draw water from the well, to test the impact on the aquifer. It conducted the tests, documenting its finding of negligible drawdown. And that meant no mitigation was required.
Once the plant is on line, the CEC’s mitigation agreement requires no ongoing monitoring to verify the company’s drawdown finding, Bond said. Bond’s supervisor Rich Sapudar also conceded that the agreement fails to stipulate, up front, how quickly the company would have to respond if drawdown does, in fact, exceed five feet, burning out pumps of surrounding wells. If it happened, the company would have to submit a new plan to CEC’s compliance unit. If the company balked at paying mitigation up front, or disputed the need, cost, or the project’s culpability in the overdrafting, a well owner could file a grievance with the CEC compliance unit, Sapudar said.
That deal was not good enough for Carmela Garnica.
After the CEC’s approval of the first energy plant, Garnica enlisted the aid of an attorney willing to work pro bono and filed suit in May 2001 against the power plant owners in Riverside County Superior Court. The suit alleged that the environmental analysis under which the plant was approved was flawed. That suit was thrown out on the basis that it was not filed in a timely fashion. In July, the court rejected an appeal of the dismissal on a technicality; the attorney, John Gabrielli, planned to re-file the appeal.
In Mesa Verde, Maria Luisa Garcia filed her own complaint — an environmental injustice claim with the federal Department of Energy. Then she forgot about it, because she never heard back from them, and because the Department of Energy has never, according to its own records, investigated the CEC — or any other governmental agency — on such grounds. However, this May, the DOE’s Office of Civil Rights and Diversity announced that they had decided to take the case. According to the DOE’s Sharon Wyatt, the most Garcia can expect from the DOE’s action is mediation with the company on her concerns.
That investigation could take years. In the meantime, the same companies that own BEP proposed a new idea in February of this year — Blythe Energy Project II, an identical 520-megawatt plant right next to BEP. Together, they would pollute twice as much as BEP alone, and would suck 6,000 acre-feet per year out of the aquifer — nearly twice the amount used by local agriculture. Despite the uncertain impacts, the companies are proposing that the CEC license Blythe II within a year. The CEC was expecting to start the licensing process in late July.
Garnica takes a deep breath when the topic of Blythe Energy Project II is broached. Although she says that local residents were dealt a setback by Blythe I’s groundbreaking in June 2001, people are starting to have meetings again. “I can tell you I’m not going at it alone,” Garnica says. “I’m not going to intervene by myself. This time I can make copies of the papers people can file to be intervenors. I can go out there and distribute all these copies and get their signatures so they can see we have 40 people [intervening], and we can ask all the questions we want, because we’ll all be sitting at that table.”
As for Garcia, she is going to continue as president of the Mesa Verde Organizing Council (or MiVOZ, my voice in Spanish). Boosted by a grant from the Washington, D.C.-based National Council of La Raza, MiVOZ is working with the Desert Alliance for Community Empowerment, a non-profit organization, to improve Mesa Verde. “We got organized because of this rude awakening. We got formed because we had concerns with this issue about the power plant. But we’ve already got two grants, and right now we’re going to build a basketball court for the community,” Garcia says. “We do clean-ups, we’ve put up stop signs. We’re like the community council now.”
Garcia hopes that this time, at least, others in Blythe will wise up to the empty promises that BEP I brought to the area. “What happened to all the cheap energy we were going to get? We’re not going to get it. What happened to all the jobs? All those people came in from somewhere else. All those broken promises, and nothing good happened. I want to get people to say, OK, they did this to us with the first power plant. Let’s not let them screw us with another.”

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