Walking on a Wire

Los Angeles needs green power. Does it have to tear up the desert to get it?

  • Electric transmission lines near Richvale, California. DAVID R. FRAZIER/DANITA DELIMONT AGENCY/DRR.NET

  • H. David Nahai says the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power "agonize(s) all the time" about the effects of new transmission lines through the desert. KEVIN SCANLON

  • In the path of powerlines? An endangered desert tortoise. PHOTO COURTESY DONNA THOMAS, CALIFORNIA DESERT COALITION

  • An LADWP survey stake in Big Morongo. PHOTO COURTESY DONNA THOMAS, CALIFORNIA DESERT COALITION

  • April Sall is interviewed while California Desert Coalition members protest the Green Path North Route in January. PHOTO COURTESY DONNA THOMAS, CALIFORNIA DESERT COALITION

 

One hundred and fifty miles east of the city of Los Angeles, the Mojave and Colorado deserts converge in towering granite rock formations and strange succulent plants -- Joshua trees raising their arms to heaven like ancient prophets. From Interstate 10, everything looks brown and barren, but oases of spring-fed green hide a little ways in, with just enough water to sustain several hundred species of birds, lizards, bugs, bobcats, desert tortoise and a ragged herd of peninsular bighorn sheep.

Austin Puglisi had planned to build his dream home here. Not your typical desert dream home, the one with the high fence to protect it from wind and the irrigated lawn to mimic the lush Midwest. Puglisi wanted to build a tiny shack and set the rest of his 54-acre parcel aside for wildlife. He would use only local water and recycle it into the aquifer. He would get off the grid and live far from its influence. So it came as a shock, one day last winter, when Puglisi discovered that the grid was coming to him.

On federal land just a few yards from the boundary of his property, Puglisi spotted a bright orange stake marking the spot where a metal disk had been anchored in the ground with concrete. Engraved on the disk were the words, "Los Angeles Department of Water and Power."

"From what I could tell," says the 47-year-old Puglisi, "it looked like some kind of utility project was either going right through my land or on the ridge right above it."

Puglisi was flabbergasted. "We had just secured our building permit," he says. "We had put in our solar-powered well. Now it looks like we have to put the whole thing on hold."

His neighbors were finding similar clues in other places. Unfamiliar trucks were lumbering across the Kickapoo Trail through the Big Morongo Canyon Preserve; helicopters were landing on the boundaries of birdwatchers' desert hideaways. The men who emerged from the trucks and helicopters cheerfully identified themselves as surveyors for the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, and handed out fliers detailing plans for their brand-new renewable electricity transmission project, the Green Path North.

In some circles, this was awfully good news. The LADWP had begun planning the Green Path North three years ago, in part to access carbon-free, always-on power from geothermal fields in the Imperial Valley near the Salton Sea, 180 miles away. The utility appeared to be moving ahead aggressively on renewable-energy transmission -- and that meant it might soon deliver on its long-stalled promise to bring green power to its 4 million customers, who currently rely on coal burned out of state for close to half their electricity.

"The LADWP wants to be a leader in the field of renewable energy," affirmed the utility's new general manager and CEO, H. David Nahai, shortly after he moved from the utility's board of commissioners to its executive branch in December. And a significant piece of that effort, he said, will be "building the transmission to bring it home."

But for Puglisi, who also volunteers with several desert conservancies, the markers signaled a new threat to a landscape that local environmentalists had long worked to preserve. Small nonprofits like The Wildlands Conservancy and the Mojave Desert Land Trust have spent years cobbling together private and public funds to buy up hundreds of thousands of acres of the Mojave, preserving them for marginal species like the fringe-toed lizard and the endangered peninsular bighorn sheep. If the survey markers indicated anything, it was that 85 miles of 160-foot-tall steel towers, occupying a footprint 330 feet wide and buzzing with 500 kilovolt wires, would soon be cutting across the path those sheep use to get to their only source of summer water.

Worried calls to the utility invariably met with the same response: No route had been decided upon, and any discussion with the community over the transmission project would be premature. The utility confirms only that the Green Path North has to extend south from the desert town of Hesperia to a substation near Palm Springs, where it will link up with existing transmission to the Salton Sea and Arizona's Palo Verde nuclear plant. It could do that via any of six different routes, including one down the Interstate 10 freeway corridor, which would expand a right of way owned by another California utility, Southern California Edison, and require the condemnation of 3,500 properties.

High Country News Classifieds
  • MONTANA DIRECTOR OF DEVELOPMENT
    YOUR POSITION WITH TNC The Director of Development (DoD) is responsible for directing all aspects of one or more development functions, which will secure significant...
  • DEVELOPMENT AND OPERATIONS COORDINATOR
    Development & Operations Coordinator Terms: 1.0 FTE (full-time), Salary DOE ($45,000 - $55,000) Benefits: Paid Time Off (12-24 days/year depending on tenure), Paid Holidays (10/year),...
  • GUIDE TO WESTERN NATIONAL MONUMENTS
    NEW BOOK showcases 70 national monuments across the western United States. Use "Guide10" for 10% off at cmcpress.org
  • CARBON RANCH PLANNER
    The Quivira Coalition (www.quiviracoaltion.org) is a Santa Fe-based nonprofit that builds resilience on arid working lands. We foster ecological, economic, and social health through education,...
  • EDUCATION AND OUTREACH DIRECTOR
    Education and Outreach Program Director The Quivira Coalition (www.quiviracoaltion.org) is a Santa Fe-based nonprofit that builds resilience on arid working lands. We foster ecological, economic,...
  • WESTERN DIVISION DIRECTOR OF FIELD PROGRAMS
    DEADLINE TO APPLY: October 29, 2021 LOCATION FLEXIBLE (WESTERN HUB CITY PREFERRED) Overview The Land Trust Alliance is the voice of the land trust community....
  • COMMUNICATIONS AND OUTREACH ASSOCIATE
    Communications and Outreach Associate Position Opening: www.westernlaw.org/communications-outreach-associate ************************************************* Location: Western U.S., ideally in one of WELC's existing office locations (Santa Fe or Taos, NM, Helena,...
  • FREELANCE GRAPHIC DESIGNER & PROJECT COORDINATOR (REMOTE)
    High Country News (HCN) is seeking a contract Graphic Designer & Project Coordinator to design promotional, marketing and fund-raising assets and campaigns, and project-manage them...
  • FILM AND DIGITAL MEDIA: ASSISTANT PROFESSOR OF INDIGENOUS MEDIA, CULTURAL SOVEREIGNTY AND DECOLONIZATION (INITIAL REVIEW 12.1.21)
    Film and Digital Media: Assistant Professor of Indigenous Media, Cultural Sovereignty and Decolonization (Initial Review 12.1.21) Position overview Position title: Assistant Professor - tenure-track Salary...
  • REAL ESTATE SPECIALIST
    To learn more about this position and to apply please go to the following URL.
  • ENVIRONMENTAL GEOPHYSICS
    "More Data, Less Digging" Find groundwater and reduce excavation costs!
  • RARE CHIRICAHUA RIPARIAN LAND FOR SALE
    40 acres: 110 miles from Tucson: native trees, grasses: birder's heaven::dark sky/ borders state lease & National forest/5100 ft/13-16 per annum rain
  • CENTRAL PARK CULTURAL RESOURCE SPECIALIST
    Agency: Oregon Parks and Recreation Department Salary Range: $5,203 - $7,996 Position Title: Central Park Cultural Resource Specialist Do you have a background in Archaeology...
  • STAFF ATTORNEY
    Come live and work in one of the most beautiful places in the world! As our Staff Attorney you will play a key role in...
  • ARIZONA GRAZING CLEARINGHOUSE
    Dedicated to preventing the ecological degradation caused by livestock grazing on Arizona's public lands, and exposing the government subsidies that support it.
  • OPERATIONS MANAGER
    Position Summary: Friends of the Inyo (friendsoftheinyo.org) is seeking a new Operations Manager. The Operations Manager position is a full-time permanent position that reports directly...
  • WATER RIGHTS BUREAU CHIEF
    Water Rights Bureau Chief, State of Montana, DNRC, Water Resources Division, Helena, MT Working to support and implement the Department's mission to help ensure that...
  • DEVELOPMENT & OUTREACH ASSOCIATE
    Southeast Alaska Conservation Council is hiring! Who We Are: The Southeast Alaska Conservation Council (SEACC) is a small grassroots nonprofit based out of Juneau, Alaska,...
  • DESERT LANDS ORGANIZER
    Position Summary: Friends of the Inyo seeks a Desert Lands Organizer to assist with existing campaigns that will defend lands in the California desert, with...
  • IDAHO CONSERVATION LEAGUE
    Want to help preserve Idaho's land, water, and air for future generations? Idaho Conservation League currently has 3 open positions. We are looking for a...