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
  • PROGRAM MANAGER, SUSTAINING FLOWS
    Friends of the Verde River, Cottonwood, AZ. Apply at https://verderiver.org/employment-opportunities/
  • PROGRAM ASSOCIATE - VERDE RIVER EXCHANGE
    Verde River Exchange - Friends of the Verde River, Cottonwood, AZ. Apply at https://verderiver.org/employment-opportunities/
  • CODE COMPLIANCE OFFICER
    Teton County Planning & Building is hiring! Our ideal candidate is a team-player, a problem-solver, pays attention to detail, and can clearly communicate technical material...
  • ARCHITECTURE DRAFTSPERSON/PROJECT MANAGER
    Studio Architects is seeking a full time Architectural drafts-person/project manager with1-3 years of experience to join our firm. At Studio Architects our mission is to...
  • ASSISTANT MANAGER/TRAINEE, COLORADO RANCH
    needed for 16,000+ acre conservation property in south central Colorado. Qualified candidate would have experience working on a ranch or wilderness property, general forestry/fire management...
  • FARM HAND &/OR NANNY IN ESCALANTE
    Nanny for 18-mnth-old. Yearly salary, vacation, health insurance. Spanish/other foreign-language native spkr prefrrd.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Washington Association of Land Trusts seeks an ED to build on WALTs significant success & to lead the association to new levels of achievement. See...
  • BEAUTIFUL CUSTOM STRAWBALE HOME IN WESTERN COLORADO!
    Secluded, energy efficient Southwestern home on 40 wooded acres. Broker - Rand Porter - United Country Real Colorado Properties. 970-261-1248, $425K
  • PUBLIC LANDS ORGANIZER
    The Arizona Wildlife Federation (AWF) is a non-profit organization dedicated to educating, inspiring, and assisting individuals and organizations to value, conserve, enhance, manage, and protect...
  • FORMER RETREAT CENTER/CONSERVATION PROPERTY FOR SALE
    57 acres in Skull Valley, AZ, 17 miles from Prescott, year-round creek, swimming holes, secluded canyon, hiking/meditation trails, oaks, pines, garden, greenhouse. House, office building,...
  • ARIZONA PUBLIC LANDS ORGANIZER
    Title: Public Lands Organizer About the Arizona Wildlife Federation (AWF) The AWF is a non-profit organization dedicated to educating, inspiring, and assisting individuals and organizations...
  • HISTORIC RANCH HOME W/ 20 ACRES
    Historic 1893 Ranch Headquarters. 4 Bdrm, 3.5 Ba, 4000 ft2. Remodeled 2002. Includes 2 studio apts, stables, arena, workshop, 5 RV hookups. Chirachua & Peloncillo...
  • NORTH TUCSON FOOTHILLS
    11.63 acres of lush desert foothills on Tucson's near north side, secluded, secure, no HOA. 10 minute walk to Waldorf and Montessori schools, regional bike...
  • VICE PRESIDENT OF RETAIL OPERATIONS
    The Vice President of Retail Operations will provide overall leadership and accountability for purchasing, product development, merchandising planning, visual merchandising, retail operational excellence, oversight and...
  • ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR
    Grand Staircase Escalante Partners seeks an experienced fundraiser with excellent communication and organizational skills.
  • MS ACCESS DATABASE PROGRAMER
    Looking for an access programmer. Contract position. Send resume with references and rates to: [email protected] www.prospace.biz
  • PROGRAM MANAGER
    position in Phoenix with the Babbitt Center for Land and Water Policy.
  • ROADS END CABIN NEAR YELLOWSTONE
    Vaulted ceilings, two fireplaces, two bedrooms, loft, jetted tub, wifi. Forest, mountain views. Wildlife. [email protected]
  • ACCOUNTING CLERK
    Our director is seeking to employ the services of an Accounting Clerk to assist with various accounting and administrative tasks. This is a great opportunity...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, COMMUNITY RADIO PROJECT
    Community Radio Project, Cortez, CO (KSJD & the Sunflower Theatre). Visit ksjd.org and click on the Executive Director search link. CRP is an EOE.