Driving west on I-8, down from the dry, rugged mountains, diving into what should be a desert landscape 100 miles east of San Diego, the Imperial Valley appears as an agricultural oasis. Miles of irrigated alfalfa and wheat fields punctuated by stacks of baled grain. Winter vegetables. Fields of lettuce.
The feat of irrigating a desert seems also to generate a bumper crop of grand dreams. And when, in October, the Federal Bureau of Land Management approved the largest solar-electric project ever on federal lands in Imperial County — it will cover ten square miles — many took it as a sign that dreams can come true.
“Our board has declared its intention to make this the renewable-energy capital of the world,” said Andy Horne, deputy executive officer of Imperial County.There are strong arguments for not peppering rural Imperial County with utility-size solar and geothermal projects — it would be cheaper and less damaging to cover urban roofs with solar panels — but it’s possible that within a decade or two, Imperial County’s dream of becoming an energy powerhouse capable of powering the entire state of California on a sunny fall day could come true.
Think about that. A single desert county, albeit one the size of Connecticut, powering the state without pollution. Without the use of fossil fuels. And, possibly, without many workers or much in the way of local taxes, due to exemptions for solar projects.
And there’s the rub. Imperial County has a renewable-energy dream for the future, while the vast valley provides a nightmarish economy for many in the present.
Last August, El Centro’s official unemployment rate — likely an underestimate of joblessness — was 30.4 percent, the nation’s highest. But why omit the positive? The August rate was an improvement from July’s rate of 32.1 percent unemployed, again the nation’s highest.
Along with the unemployment, there is widespread poverty. The county’s poverty rate is nearly 23 percent, which approaches double the rate for San Diego County, according to U.S. Census Bureau data. More than 20 percent of Imperial County’s residents have no health insurance, in a region where the California Department of Public Health found that children are three times more likely to be hospitalized for asthma.
Food banks say demand for assistance is spiking.
Regional boosters are quick to note that even in good times, Imperial County’s unemployment rate lingers in the high teens. Joblessness runs so deep in this region that they memorialized César Chávez — the farmworkers’ legendary labor leader — by affixing his name to the unemployment office in El Centro.
The development of clean renewable energy in Imperial County could be an economic restart, providing an opportunity to alleviate the crushing joblessness and support county services for needy citizens. But there is an ugly alternative: Absent proper planning, the region could become a new-century desert version of Nigeria, where billions of dollars in oil have been extracted with little benefit to the citizens.
County officials and economic developers say they’re working to avoid that prospect. They say current 30-plus percentage unemployment rates are a statistical quirk arising from a small population base with a seasonal workforce. Several said the actual unemployment rate is a percentage no higher than the low 20s. This would put it roughly at the level experienced by America’s workers during the Great Depression.
At these levels, joblessness leads to hopelessness, but not for Miguel Miranda.
Miranda spent several decades working in job development, helping to find work for others. But the Brawley city councilman was laid off four months ago from his job as a caseworker at Calipatria State Prison. With two children in college and one in medical school, Miranda needs income. Though his wife has held on to her job, the family is just getting by.
Miranda understands how dim prospects are for 50-somethings in the current market. Most employers, he said, fear hiring folks with lots of experience. “They’re afraid you’ll take their job. I’ve dealt in job development with every business in this county. Now, I’m like, ‘Remember me?’”
Things are so bad, Miranda sought work in the Imperial County’s farm fields, where he worked years ago. No luck. “They want people with experience on modern equipment,” he said.
But what Miranda said often recalls something his mother would say: “Always remember, the sun will come up tomorrow.”
“I’m an optimistic person,” said Miranda. “I never give up.”
Oscar Vaca is typical of Imperial Valley tradesmen, with a host of skills. His business card reads, “Home Repairs, Drywall, Paint, Plumbing, Electrical and More.” But Vaca has no job, no prospects. He hasn’t worked steadily for four years.
In desperation, the 52-year-old has taken to riding buses below the border in Mexico to sing songs for pocket money. His last steady job was five months spent building the border fence between Mexico and the U.S.
“I felt very bad about doing that,” said Vaca, who lives in Calexico.
“I thought I would never have to do something like that. But the bills… So I did it against my will. I needed to put money on the table. Work is fine, but when you build a wall to discriminate, this is wrong.”
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It’s a late Tuesday afternoon in El Centro, and the parking lot of the Rodeway Inn & Suites is about a third full. That’s not surprising in a struggling region, but what does surprise is that the majority of vehicles in the lot are dusty, late-model pickup trucks.
Gritty, weary workmen clamber out of the cabs into their two-star motel rooms, as daylight fades to a colorful sunset across the valley’s broad sky. As darkness sets in, a few workmen pull chairs outside to share beer and talk.
When I arise at 7:30 a.m., the pickups and the men are gone. I see no one at the motel’s complimentary breakfast in the lobby, where I eat alone.
Jennifer Badgley, an organizer with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 569, tipped me to expect this. In a county with massive unemployment, Badgley said, contractors regularly bring workers in from elsewhere to do Imperial County’s work.