As the public comment period for the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power’s proposed Southern Owens Valley Solar Ranch project ticks away, the County of Inyo is working on a game plan to protect taxpayers.
Concerned “first and foremost” with the project’s potential impacts on local services, the county is reviewing a Draft Environmental Impact Report that LADWP released to the public Sept. 4 per the California Environmental Quality Act.
The purpose of the review is multi-fold, according to County Administrator Kevin Carunchio.
According to Carunchio, the county is essentially proceeding on “parallel tracks” as it waits for LADWP to present a Memorandum of Understanding that, if approved by both the Inyo County Board of Supervisors and L.A. Board of Water and Power Commissioners, would put millions of dollars in Inyo’s coffers to offset some of the costs to the county associated with LADWP’s proposed solar ranch – 1-2 million photovoltaic panels and associated structures on 1,200 L.A.-owned acres of desert east of Manzanar National Historic Site, U.S. 395 and the Owens River between Independence and Lone Pine.
Should the MOU never materialize, or not come to fruition by the Oct. 18 deadline, the county will be ready to respond to the Draft EIR with comments for the official record.
“When they say they’re ready to sit down, we’ll be ready to sit down,” Carunchio said of MOU discussions.
The county’s “parallel tracks” approach was set in motion at the Aug. 6 Board of Supervisors meeting, when Carunchio informed the supervisors that LADWP had resurrected its project with a different, preferred site: 1,200 acres of land six miles southeast of Independence, 10 miles north of Lone Pine, four miles east of U.S. 395 with Manzanar Reward Road running along the southern perimeter and Mazourka Canyon Road three miles to the north. When LADWP released a Notice of Preparation for the project in 2010, the two site alternatives identified were located in the Lone Pine area.
The MOU will be based on a term sheet that both the Inyo County Board of Supervisors and L.A. Board of Water and Power Commissioners signed on Aug. 6 – the former over strong objections from constituents who at the very least wanted the board to wait for the Draft EIR to be released.
The term sheet itself was the result of “negotiations” between the City of L.A. and county staff over the past several months, Carunchio said on Aug. 6. Essentially, he said last week, LADWP staff came forward in April or May to let the county know the solar project had been resurrected with a different preferred project site, that a Draft EIR was in the works and that LADWP wanted to address county concerns early on in the process.
Chief among the county’s concerns, Carunchio explained, are the estimated $6 million in impacts to county resources – housing, law enforcement and basic infrastructure – expected to result over the next 25 years.
The concept of both a large-scale solar project and its impacts to county services was fresh in leaders’ minds courtesy of the recently concluded, multi-year process that resulted in BrightSource abandoning its project in Inyo County’s southeastern desert in April.
So working on the term sheet wasn’t so much an automatic kowtow to L.A. – as the county’s response has been characterized – as it was a been-there-done-that prudence based on experience with BrightSource, Carunchio explained.
Having a seat at the table was particularly appealing to the county considering it has no regulatory authority over the LADWP or its lands within the Owens Valley as far as this project is concerned. It was also attractive based on flashbacks to the BrightSource process in which the county was consistently on the losing end of hearings with the California Public Utilities Commission, which loves green energy and which will have the final say on LADWP’s solar ranch.
As presented at the Aug. 6 board meeting, a number of terms were offered by LADWP in the way of mitigation for impacts to the county, including a one-time payment of $4.5 million to “offset project-related costs.”
The term sheet includes a $2 million “economic development loan” for Inyo County as well.
LADWP also offered to expand its Feed-in Tariff program to 10 megawatts so that renewable electricity generators – homeowners, business owners, lessees and the county – can sell the renewable energy they generate at a long-term fixed rate. The city will also “make commercially reasonable efforts” to negotiate energy-efficiency contracts with local schools, to the economic benefit of the schools.
LADWP also offered to bring at least 10 Inyo County residents on as trainees during construction with the goal of providing them long-term employment.
None of this materializes until both parties sign an MOU. And none of it has been offered for free, either.
In exchange for the items offered in the term sheet, the county must sign an MOU stating it will not challenge LADWP’s project during the Final EIR – hence the strong objections on Aug. 6. While the term sheet was not legally binding, the MOU will be.
Greg James, former Inyo County Water Department director filling in at County Counsel’s Office in August, advised the board at the time that nothing precluded the county from commenting on the Draft EIR, other than perhaps LADWP’s preference that it didn’t.
Until the county is presented with an MOU for consideration, it will continue reviewing the Draft EIR.
According to Carunchio, staff, working with department heads, is looking at the EIR with the following in mind:
• Is the project floated by the City of L.A. several months ago the same project described in the environmental analysis?
• Are the impacts described in the Draft EIR unacceptable to the county?
• Are the estimated costs to the county in line with what is being proposed?
County officials have already acknowledged that LADWP’s proposal is not consistent with Inyo’s General Plan.
As was pointed out at the Aug. 6 board meeting, LADWP could present an MOU for approval any day now – not only interrupting the county’s review of the project but silencing local leaders altogether should they vote to place their signatures on the document.
Groups and individuals already publicly opposed to LADWP’s project include the Manzanar Committee, Manzanar National Historic Site Superintendent Les Inafuku and the Lone Pine and Big Pine Paiute tribes. Reasons for the opposition included the project’s expected adverse impacts on the aesthetic, cultural, biological and hydrological resources of the valley, not to mention air quality.
It was suggested that rather than acquiesce to LADWP, the county pool its limited resources with the tribes, National Park Service and even Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service to fight LADWP’s project.