For Vernon Shoemaker, 59, who cares for three Nez Perce horses on a three-quarter-acre… (Bob Chamberlin, Los Angeles…)
The Riverside County city of Norco is best known for being "Horsetown USA," a city with more miles of riding trails than paved roads and a hitching post at the downtown McDonald's.
Truth be told, Norco is also on the receiving end of 65 tons of manure produced each day by its population of at least 17,000 horses. So now the city is taking a hard look at a proposal to cash in on all that waste by building a manure-to-energy conversion plant.
Designed by Chevron Energy Solutions, the plant would end $17.25-per-ton shipments of manure-filled barrels and dumpsters from Norco homes, stables and horse clubs to leased drying fields about 10 miles away. It also would generate annual power revenues of about $7 million for the city of 24,000 people, including roughly 6,000 inmates at the California Rehabilitation Center, city officials said.
"What a way to get green," said Denise Shoemaker, vice president of the 800-member Norco Horsemen's Assn.
Chevron believes the plant would be the first of its kind.
Norco City Manager Beth Groves said equestrian communities across the country will be watching because many of them have similar problems. "Well, maybe not quite as large as ours. But then, it's a big country," she said.
The project would create 12 jobs and provide permanent relief when it comes to the 14-square-mile city's disposal problem, said Norco Mayor Pro Tem Kathy Azevedo, a horse owner and resident of 40 years.
The city is concerned because it does not have long-term leases on the drying fields. "It's scary to think of what would happen if we lost the leases and the manure started piling up," she said.
The City Council voted 5 to 0 last week to proceed with an environmental impact report on the proposed plant.
Norco has some of the strictest zoning in the nation to protect horses. The minimum lot size is half an acre. Many shopping malls include corrals. Restaurants offer "rodeo burgers," and even the Bob's Big Boy statue wears a big brown cowboy hat and pointed cowboy boots. The Norco Horsemen's Assn. sponsors "Wild West casino night" events that have raised $68,000 in scholarships for high school agricultural students.
If all goes according to plan, the $35-million plant could be burning Norco's horse manure for electricity within two years on an unincorporated area a few miles outside of town.
"Norco came to us with a problem — horse manure, whole lots of it, and associated challenges including transportation, storage and, of course, pungent emissions," said Ken Pimental, spokesman for Chevron Energy Solutions.
Construction of the plant can't start soon enough for Shoemaker's husband, Vernon, 59, who cares for three Nez Perce horses, a spotted breed of the Nez Perce Tribe of Idaho, on a three-quarter-acre lot in Norco.
"It'll cut costs at a time when a bale of hay is going for up to $22," he said. "But some things won't change around here, like having to clean up around the horses."