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Last updateTue, 18 Sep 2018 1pm

Last fall, when California voters were about to go to the polls to weigh in on a complex proposition to improve the state’s water situation, some environmental groups balked. Though the bill—Proposition 1, to authorize the raising of $7.5 billion on the bond market—promised money for better parks, more wildlife habitat and the restoration of urbanized rivers (like maybe the one that runs through Los Angeles), it also set aside $2.7 billion for “water storage projects” that have a “public benefit.”

It was never quite clear what those words meant. Would the $2.7 billion become seed money for two new dams on the state agricultural industry’s wish list? Or would it go toward groundwater storage projects that keep water closer to home? The bill was written to be “tunnel neutral,” meaning it wouldn’t automatically pay for a pair of canals that Gov. Jerry Brown wants to build, to draw water from the Sacramento River and ostensibly reduce pumping from the ecologically stressed California Delta. But it wasn’t “tunnel negative,” either.

“It’s mystery meat,” said Adam Scow, California director of the activist nonprofit group Food and Water Watch, about that $2.7 billion pot.

Nevertheless, with Brown’s juggernaut of support lined up behind it, the water bill passed easily, with 67 percent of the vote. So now Prop 1’s opponents have a new cause: Riding herd on the nine governor-appointed members of the California Water Commission, the people who will decide how the money gets spent.

Formed in 1913 to referee water-rights wars in the state, the California Water Commission now exists to advise the Department of Water Resources and supervise the State Water Project. In its current incarnation, it includes at least one bona fide environmental leader of a conservationist bent, Kim Delfino, of Defenders of Wildlife, but also one passionate advocate for Central Valley farmers and their water rights, grower Joe Del Bosque, who last year got President Obama to visit his farm with a tweeted invitation. Also on the commission are a Silicon Valley contractor, an engineer, a water-district manager, an educator and a consultant. Joseph Byrne, a Los Angeles attorney specializing in California environmental law, was appointed in 2010 and serves as its current chair.

The commission has just begun to deliberate on that $2.7 billion; much of the January 21 meeting was spent setting rules for that process. Members of the public who showed up to speak weighed in heavily on the conservationist side, warning against big water-storage projects that will exacerbate California’s already unkeepable promises to farmers. Such endeavors “have a long history of claimed environmental benefits that didn’t come to pass,” said Barry Nelson, of Western Water Strategies, formerly of the Natural Resources Defense Council. Tim Stroshane, of the Environmental Water Caucus, pushed for expanding the use of existing groundwater basins, such as the one in north Los Angeles’ San Fernando Valley; “investing in them will lead to less demand for imported water,” he told the commission. “Real water reliability would result.”

The commission has a deadline to finish its Prop 1 work by the end of December 2016, at which point—assuming they meet that deadline—California may have moved a tiny bit toward a more sustainable water system. Or the state will have continued farther along its current path, in which no storm, no matter how big, can make a dent in the grindingly persistent drought. Already, agricultural interests are circling the wagons around their share, accusing Brown of reneging on his promises by allocating $532 million in Prop 1 funds for stream restoration, recycling projects, aquifer cleanup and other environmentally friendly ideas. Never mind that such projects were in the bill from the start—they are, after all, what got environmentalists on board—and don’t cut into the water storage funds.

No doubt the water commissioners, too, will anger some segment of the state’s population, no matter what they decide “water storage” means for California’s future. But they also have a chance to set the state on a course toward fewer crises, and hence fewer water conflicts. As Department of Water Resources director Mark Cowin said at the commission’s January meeting, the “new responsibilities that come with Prop 1 make these probably the most important years in the California Water Commission’s history.”

The commission may not, as the Pacific Institute’s chief water wonk, Peter Gleick, rightly argued last November, be able to solve all of California’s problems with Prop 1 funds. But their work might just mark the start of asking the right questions.

This story originally appeared in High Country News.

Published in Environment

Interior Secretary Sally Jewell came to the Mojave Desert this September to announce a multi-agency effort to boost renewable energy development in the desert.

But first, she had to go on a hike.

“We went out into the Big Morongo (Canyon) Preserve,” she told reporters. “Fifteen, 20 minutes from here, there are wetlands. Wetlands, and 254 different bird species. Who knew?”

I remember being amazed, too, on a 2008 visit to that same preserve with a couple of California conservationists. I thought I knew the dry desert, its banded sunsets and varieties of lizards. But Morongo was a wonderland of seeps and birds, where a couple of times we stopped to behold a desert tortoise munching on purple flowers.

It was also a wonderland through which the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power had hoped to string a transmission corridor. The city planned to call it the Green Path North, as it would haul geothermal energy from the Salton Sea to the transmission hubs that serve Los Angeles.

That transmission line never happened. As with so many renewable-energy projects slated for the Mojave and Colorado deserts of California, Green Path North mostly fell victim to market forces—but not before it sullied the utility’s reputation locally. The proposal had the effect of uniting off-roaders, rock-climbers and conservationists in protest against the careless industrialization of the desert for energy projects—even clean-energy projects.

The new Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan, a collaboration among federal, state and local governments; the solar industry; Native American tribal leaders; and environmentalists, is an attempt to get ahead of such careless proposals. An analysis of 22.5 million acres of desert land, both public and private, it sets aside habitat for desert species like the tortoise and bighorn sheep. It should guide developers toward land rich with transmission, but absent cultural and natural resources.

Jewell called it a “road map” that can be used for more renewable-energy development around the country. As she stood against a background of windmills just outside of Palm Springs, describing how the Obama administration means to “double down” on public-lands renewable energy development, the 8,000-page document went online.

So far, environmental groups have mostly praised the effort, as have Native American leaders and national park advocates. Kim Delfino, the California program director at Defenders of Wildlife, says she hopes it means that “we can focus on the projects we all can support.” The Sierra Club calls the plan “a promising step” toward protecting “areas with environmental, cultural or scenic value that should be preserved for future generations.”

Energy developers, too, should be happy, as the plan promises to end the uncertainty that has wasted so much of their time and money. Two weeks before the plan’s release, for example, the California Energy Commission had belatedly approved the Palen Solar Power Plant, a collaboration between California-based BrightSource Energy and Spanish developer Abengoa. The commission had rejected the project last December, partially on the grounds that its peculiar technology—fields of mirrors that concentrate sunlight on a 750-foot high tower—would create hazards for birds in the Colorado Desert. A similar BrightSource solar plant on California’s border with Nevada seems to be creating an ecological “megatrap” that kills birds.

But in mid-September, the commission changed course: The project could go ahead, but at only half of its proposed size. Then, on Sept. 26, the developers suddenly withdrew their application. The delay had cost them a federal tax credit and, quite possibly, their power purchase agreement with a major California utility.

The Desert Sun called the cancellation “shocking,” accurately summing up the general reaction to the announcement. But the real shock should not have been that Palen was canceled, but that the project was ever considered an appropriate idea for a place where it could do so much damage.

Will the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan, which clears the way for 20,000 more megawatts of solar and wind on desert lands by 2040, prevent more ill-planned projects that stutter and fail? Everyone I talked to who’d come to hear Secretary Jewell speak said they were optimistic.

But a conservation plan is only as good as the people who make it happen on the ground. It’s worth remembering the lesson of the Green Path North: No energy project can be green without the support of the people who will have to live alongside it. And environmental ideals mean little if they aren’t backed up by genuine care for the local landscape.

Judith Lewis Mernit is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News, where this piece first appeared. She is a contributing editor for the magazine.

Published in Community Voices