9/7/14 – A Reader Writes: The Salton Sea Initiative and SB 1139: The problem remains even if the bill doesn’t

From Imperial Valley Press, 9-7-14

By Kevin Kelley, IID general manager

It is easy to view the quiet end to Senate Bill 1139, which would have required California’s investor-owned utilities to procure up to 500 megawatts of new geothermal energy in the next 10 years, as an outright rejection of this renewable resource for all time. Similarly, although the bill was silent on where this new generation would come from, it won’t be a stretch for some to see it as the death knell of the Salton Sea.

Here is why I think both views are mistaken:

As a direct result of this legislation, even though it fell short in clearing the Assembly and reaching the governor’s desk, geothermal energy is once again part of the renewable energy portfolio conversation in the Capitol. As for the Salton Sea, while it was never explicitly referred to in the bill, its plight and the state’s unmet obligation to come up with a bona fide restoration plan there is now top-of-mind. Neither of these things was true prior to the introduction of SB 1139.

Left intact is the Imperial Irrigation District and Imperial County’s Salton Sea Restoration and Renewable Energy Initiative and the broad coalition that we have been able to build around it. That coalition is made up of over 60 local and regional governmental bodies, trade unions, business associations and environmental groups, all of them believing, as we do, that the path forward in achieving a viable Salton Sea restoration plan is in developing the unique renewable energy assets, including baseload geothermal energy, to be found there.

There is no doubt that the loss of SB 1139 in this legislative session is a setback, but the soundness of our initiative and the premise on which it is based, that the solution to the vexing public policy dilemma of arriving at a smaller but sustainable Salton Sea lies within the sea itself, is unchanged. Also unchanged is the state’s need to reconcile its procurement of renewable resources with the aggressive air standards called for in Assembly Bill 32 and what most people believe will become a largely decarbonized future for electric utilities in California.

This will be hard to do with the loss of the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station and a replacement strategy that relies so heavily on natural gas – and the emissions associated with it.

But there is something else that remains unchanged by the outcome of this bill, and it looms larger than the particular attributes – minus the emissions of natural gas – of the untapped geothermal energy resource at the Salton Sea, or the lithium-rich content of the brine stream there or the ongoing drought or even the fate of the nation’s largest agricultural-to-urban water transfer on which the disposition of the restoration/mitigation question depends.

It is in our resolve as an irrigation district and public power provider to hold others to account and to protect the region and its people from the aftereffects of an unchecked environmental ghetto. And that resolve has only deepened in the wake of this bill’s defeat.

The fundamental problem at the Salton Sea and what to do about it hasn’t gone away just because SB 1139 has. And when it comes to addressing that problem – and ensuring that others do the same – IID isn’t going anywhere.