In summary

Assembly bill initiates a discussion of how the local community could have some control over a $3 billion hydro-electric construction project.

By Steve Hernandez, Special to CalMatters

Steve Hernandez is the mayor of Coachella, shernandez@coachella.org. He wrote this commentary for CalMatters.

When our Assemblyman Eduardo Garcia introduced Assembly Bill 2736 to give my community and the surrounding areas just a little voice in how a massive project in our region is developed, he was immediately met with an onslaught of opposition led by the National Parks Conservation Association and other Washington, D.C.-based, self-appointed protectors of Eastern Riverside County. 

Their concern? The legislation might, just might, be a trick! A “Trojan Horse” that will be used to aid a proposed 1,300-megawatt pumped hydro-electric storage facility 50 miles east of my community, at the site of an abandoned iron-ore mine.

Led by the National Parks Conservation Association, these groups seem to have a mortal fear that a brownfield site in the middle of the desert, unused for decades, might actually be turned into something that would fight climate change while creating thousands of jobs, tens of millions of dollars in local income and hundreds of millions in tax revenue. Their problem? The site is near Joshua Tree National Park, 1½ miles away from the eastern and most remote part of the park.

Ironically, AB 2736 actually adds another level of protection to Joshua Tree National Park. 

Having served on Coachella Valley conservation commissions since 2008, I have long advocated for local environmental protections, and AB 2736 is a big step in empowering that local voice.

Understand, the proposed Eagle Mountain project went through nearly 10 years of regulatory review, mostly under the Obama administration, with deep investigations of potential impacts and subsequent requirements for some of the most stringent mitigations ever placed on a project. From groundwater monitoring wells to a tortoise preserve, this green energy project is a testament to responsible development. 

The one hitch for us?

We, the very communities who will be impacted by this project have no real voice. This is a federally permitted project, and we’d like to have a say in making sure it lives up to the terms of its licenses and permits. That made the National Parks Conservation Association and some other groups crazy. 

An op-ed called Garcia’s bill a fake, a piece of trickery – a shell that the developers of the pumped storage facility would change to aid the project. 

Seriously?  Asking for a voice for a community made up of migrant workers and their families is a ruse to trick the rich environmentalists who love to tell us what we should do with our lands?

No, National Parks Conservation Association, the bill was not a trick. We’d like a voice. That may be hard to comprehend for a D.C.-based organization with a $417,000 a year CEO and their dozen six-figure executives. In my community, per capita income is $16,200.

All AB 2736 is intended to do is initiate a discussion of how my community and others in the area could have some control over a $3 billion construction project that would be built in our backyard.

Instead, opposition groups have contrived a life and death struggle over this project, escalating the drama out of proportion to reality, claiming that Joshua Tree National Park itself is in danger should this project be built despite the years of review and reams of science saying otherwise. Why?

My guess is that the debate over Garcia’s local control bill specifically, and the project overall, has become a political and fundraising game, not a real policy discussion. 

Let’s be clear: no one has a bigger stake in protecting Joshua Tree National Park than the residents of the Coachella Valley. It drives much of our tourism economy and is a spiritual and natural legacy for us all. But invoking the name of a national treasure in a false and frankly disrespectful argument intended to fill the coffers of six-figure virtue-crats in Washington, D.C., is a cynical ploy made tragic since their win is yet another loss for the poor communities I represent. We respectfully ask them for a little respect.

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Steve Hernandez is the mayor of Coachella, shernandez@coachella.org. He wrote this commentary for CalMatters.

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