July 20, 2008

Anger Erupts at Water Meeting

By Lauren McSherry

YUCCA VALLEY - The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power ended years of silence on some of the details surrounding a proposed path of power lines Saturday at a public meeting with High Desert residents that quickly turned hostile.

David Nahai, general manager of the LADWP, the largest municipal utility in the nation, attempted to placate the audience, which occasionally hissed, as he assured them that Green Path North would only be used to transmit renewable energy.

Opponents say the project threatens pristine desert habitat and have questioned whether the motivations behind the plan are truly "green."

"People are watching what we're doing," Nahai said of balancing land preservation with the task of reducing greenhouse gases.

"We're at the forefront of a debate that is going to sweep the state if not the nation. Let us show them that it can be done."

More than 300 people attended the two-hour meeting at Yucca Valley High School.

Although the meeting was held in Yucca Valley, the proposed power line path could impact more than just the communities along the Highway 62.

The power lines could traverse more than 200 miles of land in San Bernardino County, impacting a number of cities, in an effort to link two power stations - one in Desert Hot Springs, the other near Hesperia.

Six alternate routes were submitted to the U.S. Bureau of Land Management in May.

Opposition has been mounting against the first proposed route, which cut north through the Big Morongo Canyon Preserve and Bighorn Mountain Wilderness. The route would then skirt the northern boundary of the San Bernardino National Forest.

Another proposed route would run along the southern foothills of the San Bernardino Mountains and be visible to residents from Banning to San Bernardino before crossing the Cajon Pass to reach Hesperia.

Community activists and elected officials have been pressuring the LADWP to use an existing route along the 10 Freeway that is operated by Southern California Edison.

Nahai avoided answering budgetary questions about the cost of building the project and the amount of money that has gone into it so far.

Asked how much the LADWP would profit from operating the transmission conduit, he said, "I don't know. We don't think of it as standing to profit.

"We're there to provide a service."

A preliminary study found the corridor along the 10 Freeway is not wide enough for the proposed transmission lines, Nahai said. Approximately 3,500 houses would need to be condemned to accommodate Green Path North, he said.

"Clearly, we would need to come up with another alternative," he said.

Even though the transmission lines will be a part of Southern California's energy grid, they will only have enough capacity to carry geothermal energy from the Salton Sea and local renewable energy projects, Nahai said.

A number of environmental and energy policy groups addressed Nahai at the emotionally charged meeting.

One woman broke into tears as she presented Nahai with photos of her community and asked him not to destroy it. Nahai hugged her.

In recent years, the agency has earned a reputation for not disclosing information to the media or public, a reputation Nahai is attempting to redeem.

Still, Mike Cipra, a program manager with the National Parks Conservation Area, scolded the LADWP for not responding to a letter he sent the agency with concerns about the proposed path's impact on Joshua Tree National Park.

"Since I never heard back, I have to assume you didn't read it," he said.

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