Clean energy a critical boost to Coachella Valley

A view of the Coachella Valley in inland southern California. (Photo: Virrage Images, via Shutterstock)

Beatrice gets up every day in her mobilehome that sits on a remote dirt road and showers with arsenic-laden water before heading to her cleaning job in a luxury resort, 15 miles west.

Nearby, Steven wakes and he, too, showers in water the Environmental Protection Agency says has up to 10 times the amount of arsenic deemed safe for human consumption; then he heads to a market miles away to get drinking water for his wife and kids.

Several miles south, Alex wakes to a rotting sulfur smell that fills the air from the nearby dying Salton Sea. He also showers in arsenic water and stops at a convenient store to pick up a bottle of clean drinking water before heading to his job in the fields picking lettuce.

It sounds a bit like Flint, Michigan, but it’s the eastern Coachella Valley, California.

The inequalities of our state are writ large in the Coachella Valley. The west side of the valley offers verdant homes with pools that sell for millions, the distractions of Palm Springs and rock concerts, and a glamourous history that involves Hollywood and presidents from Eisenhower to Obama who have come to the Coachella Valley to play golf.

The east side of the Coachella Valley is the opposite. Literally 10 miles east of the Waldorf Hotel and the multi-million-dollar Kardashian compound lie some of the most impoverished, yet essential and resilient, communities, in the nation, whose labor produces more than $600 million in agricultural goods a year. This also is where the people who service the wealthy of the west side live.

Poverty rates in parts of the eastern valley are estimated to run as high as 30%, air quality is among the poorest in the nation so asthma rates are through the roof; many residents live in one of the 100 or so mobilehome parks that dot the desert landscape with no access to clean water. My work as executive director of Pueblo Unido CDC is to bring resources and infrastructure to these hard-working people in those communities.

It’s been like this for decades: out of sight and out of mind for most Californians. Yet renewable energy investments offer exciting opportunities to change this.

Riverside County and the Coachella Valley are a hub for renewable energy. The windmill farms peppering the San Gorgonio Pass as you enter the Palm Springs area from the west illustrate our local commitment to renewables. We lead the state in solar, wind and other renewables.

These solar fields and windmills provide the clean energy we need and put jobs and revenue into our local communities. Moreover, proposed clean energy storage projects in our area have the potential to displace polluting gas-fired plants currently used to meet peak electricity demand in our state. The majority of these,  known as peaker plants,are in disadvantaged communities, creating high levels of poor air quality and resultant health risks.

Investment in clean, renewable energy storage can change this.

A proposal for a 1,300 megawatt pumped-storage project 60 miles east of Coachella at the site of an old, abandoned iron-ore mine near Eagle Mountain would generate enough clean energy to potentially replace two-thirds of the peaker plants in California’s disadvantaged communities, during peak periods of demand.

I’ve personally toured the proposed pumped storage project site and, as an environmentalist, I asked tough questions about water use and wildlife protection. I saw the scarred nature of the site—mountains of debris everywhere and pockmarks of deep holes, carved from decades of mining, located on a remote geographical area surrounded by endless, arid terrain.

What I saw was a project that will: 1) fight the effects of climate change, 2) keep the lights on during peak demand so we don’t keep enduring rolling blackouts, and 3) has the potential to transform the economy of the eastern Coachella Valley, lifting communities out of poverty and maybe—just maybe—helping to clean the air and provide access to basic services.

I’m not alone in believing this project can be transformational for these impoverished communities. The project has widespread support among our elected officials, local labor organizations and community groups who recognize what this project can do for the area and the state.

Environmental justice means many things to different people. For those who live in the mobilehome park and work in the fields and at the resorts of this Valley, it means investing in the infrastructure needed to bring us clean air, clean water, affordable housing, better jobs and new opportunities.

A large clean energy project such as the one proposed at the abandoned iron mine can go a long way to helping us get there.

Editor’s Note: Sergio Carranza is the executive director of the nonprofit Pueblo Unido CDC, which works to build sustainable communities in the eastern Coachella Valley with access to clean water and infrastructure.

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