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A powerful champion of a power line

Governor is pressing state regulators to OK a utility's plan. Critics are opposed to a route through a state park.

April 27, 2008|Michael Rothfeld | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is pushing state regulators to sign off on a high-voltage power line that a San Diego utility wants to build through the middle of California's largest state park.

Proposed for Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, the project puts Schwarzenegger again at odds with environmentalists -- and some state officials -- who believe he is allowing California's unrivaled collection of public preserves to be threatened.

The latest controversy follows the governor's proposal to close 48 parks to save money, his backing of a six-lane toll road through San Onofre State Beach and his decision not to reappoint two foes of that project -- his brother-in-law Bobby Shriver and actor-director Clint Eastwood -- to the state parks commission.

Schwarzenegger, who says the power line is needed to transport clean energy, was concerned that Shriver and Eastwood might fight it too, said some officials and others familiar with the situation. The governor's aides have said he removed the pair to give others a chance to serve.

The battle highlights the tension between California's demand for infrastructure and its desire to protect natural resources.

East of San Diego in the Colorado Desert, Anza-Borrego is among the largest state parks in the United States and runs 70 miles south from Riverside County nearly to Mexico. It shelters a variety of wildlife and contains structures thought to be ancient human dwellings. Nearly a million people visit each year.

The 150-mile transmission line would run through the park for more than 20 miles, replacing wooden poles that carry lower-voltage lines with industrial-style towers up to 160 feet tall.

San Diego Gas & Electric and its parent corporation, Sempra Energy, promise that the proposed line, known as Sunrise Powerlink, would carry renewable power from the sun, wind and ground, mostly via yet-undeveloped plants in the bright, hot Imperial Valley.

State law requires utilities to supply 20% of their energy from renewable sources by 2010 -- a benchmark SDG&E has said it cannot meet. The San Diego utility supplies 6% today.

"The project's significance lies not only in its supplying additional power for a thriving and growing region but in doing so in a way that truly moves California into the future," Schwarzenegger wrote to Dian Grueneich, the California public utility commissioner overseeing the project's application, in a letter last December that came to light last month.

But the project would mar sweeping vistas of mountains, desert and scenic roads on 90,000 of Anza-Borrego's 600,000 acres, spoil the solitude of campgrounds with loud buzzing and jeopardize species such as the endangered bighorn sheep, according to parks officials and a draft state and federal environmental review completed in January. That report found five preferable alternatives, including a route south of the park along Interstate 8 through the Cleveland National Forest.

"The idea that we're going to sacrifice critical pieces of our environment to protect other pieces of our environment seems a little ironic," said Elizabeth Goldstein, president of the nonprofit California Parks Foundation. "That's an irony I cannot accept. We have to find a way to do both."

Schwarzenegger, in turn, called environmentalists and Democrats hypocrites for trying to block clean-energy projects.

"It's a kind of schizophrenic behavior," the Republican governor said recently at a Yale University conference on climate change. "They say that we want renewable energy, but we don't want you to put it anywhere."

He cited opposition to SDG&E's plan for "150 miles of transmission lines" -- the precise distance of the company's proposed route through Anza-Borrego. The alternative southern route is 40 miles shorter.

The governor's parks director, Ruth Coleman, objects to SDG&E's plans and told Grueneich in February that she prefers a route that avoids the park. But in deference to Schwarzenegger, she has remained otherwise silent on the matter in recent months -- as she eventually did on the toll road plan -- since issuing a blistering statement to the Public Utilities Commission in 2006.

Coleman, who declined an interview request, wrote then that the power line "would forever change the character of this pristine park and wilderness area."

Some environmentalists question how much renewable energy the line would carry, because production is still scant in the Imperial Valley. Development is uncertain, they say, and the utility could use the line to import electricity from Sempra's natural gas-fired plants in Mexico and Arizona.

The Public Utilities Commission is expected to reach a decision on whether the line should be built, and where, by late summer. "I believe very strongly that the public needs to have confidence this process has been fair," said Grueneich, who has arranged public hearings in Borrego Springs, near the park, on May 12.

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