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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.”

∗ ∗ ∗

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.

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Comments

BlueSouthPark Dec. 2, 2010 @ 8:43 a.m.

This is an incredibly detailed, well-done report on the Imperial Valley. Thank you for the great work. I've never stopped in any of the towns in the Valley, on going to or returning from camping trips in the mountains or desert. But the vast and amazing stretches of land and agriculture are a sight to behold. I'll stop next time and spend some money in a grocery or other business. It's great to have a glimmer of what the reality is for the residents. Luck to them all.

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landbourn Dec. 3, 2010 @ 11:46 a.m.

Interesting article, but I think you got a bit disoriented before writing the first sentence: "Driving west on I-8, down from the dry, rugged mountains..." The direction you were headed was east.

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chrisarellano Dec. 4, 2010 @ 11:25 a.m.

and your point being the dried up dog shit is on your left shoe and not the right shoe? How is this correction in this detail going to help anybody, other than the peanut gallery?

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chrisarellano Dec. 4, 2010 @ 11:22 a.m.

All these career politicians have festered this already putrid wound even further. This is a temporary fix for a long term problem. A band-aid on a broken neck if you will. If this was a plant that would create solar panels or some actual manufacturing going on, now we'd be in business, but otherwise, the fix from this is only going to be superficial and only line the pockets of the already rich. I don't think the future of renewable energy is going to be some big hunkin' plant carved out of the land, it's going to have to be on the roof tops of peoples homes. By getting everybody involved as well and doing this on the many abandoned structures that pock mark this desperate landscape. Nothing should be off the table for creating jobs and should look at everything. This is why I left here. Unemployment is much larger than that 30% they say, since they only count people that are collecting unemployment. Screw the idiot in the article that said the number is actually much lower. The only way to get a decent career in the Imperial Valley is to be a government employee, border patrol, the prison or the like. Sucking off of uncle sam's teet isn't gonna do shit for IV, just further destroy it's resourcefulness. The majority of office holders seek for nothing more than to perpetuate their position where they themselves are the only ones that have any stable jobs. People are hungry for growth and are willing to work. The labor is there, the manpower is there and the talent is there to train those lacking in skill to elevate those to the next level that is necessary to bring IV out of this economic mind funk that has been woven into the very fabric and mind set of most residents there. I think it's worth a try looking at the new emerging marijuana industry that's popping up. Now there is a bumper cash crop for you, more $ per acre than any other and besides, it's California's true #1 cash crop. Plus hemp is a viable resource that can be tapped for many industries; construction, textiles, paper, medicine, food and other areas we've yet to even scratch the surface on. There needs to be a culture of excitement and the same tired burned out faces and names with the same 19th century bucket and well mind set are not going to come up with the ideas that are going to take us to the 21st century.

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chrisarellano Dec. 4, 2010 @ 11:24 a.m.

Everybody is going to have to dig deep, hunker down, roll up them damn sleeves and do some actual work. The government cannot and will not be the solution to all your damn problems. You're going to have to save yourselves. I am disgusted with all the politicians and self appointed desert rat royalty aristocracy bullshit. Most polluted river in the western hemisphere runs through Imperial County. The Salton Sea is a result of mistakes by industrial giants in the area. If anything the Imperial Valley has proven itself to be a huge urinal for these power players that don't give a shit about working class families. You all need to be enraged and stand up and say I'm tired of this shit. If you want the things in your life you've never had before you are going to have to do the things you've never done before. Dream. Work. Imagine. Love. Think. Build towards the future, not just trying to take care of a fix this election or whatever enough to make people forget how miserable they are, because the solution is always right around the corner. The whole lot of useless politicians there, they should all be burned at the stake. They make me vomit in my mouth.

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Founder Dec. 4, 2010 @ 1:37 p.m.

Here are three things that could easily transform our entire region:

  1. We need a high speed train from the Salton Sea to SD, this would open up development and allow folks to live in energy efficient home there and also commute to SD via rapid rail.

  2. We should start the plan to clean up the Northern half of the Salton Sea; this would give SD and the entire region another place to store water, increase Real Estate value nearby and also provide a huge recreational area for water sports like Lake Mead.

  3. Install Solar Farms, both wind and photovoltaic panels to help generate electricity for our area!

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Founder Dec. 4, 2010 @ 1:42 p.m.

I also agree with the Author that the $UNRISE link will only add more money to SDG&E, instead of help lessen our dependance on foreign oil!

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Visduh Dec. 4, 2010 @ 7:32 p.m.

Something is very awry in the IV. A century ago it was touted as a great agricultural cornucopia as a result of diverting Colorado River water into irrigation. High value crops such as cotton, grains, and fruits (melons) were mentioned as coming in abundance from the area. A few years ago, I read that the number one crop raised in the IV is hay. Yes, boys and girls, we pump huge amounts of water out of the river to raise . . . hay. Doubtless, much of that is fed to cattle raised in the valley, but a large portion of it goes to the suburbs of LA, OC and San Diego to support a growing population of horses. We don't eat horses, we don't milk them, and many are ridden only occasionally. They exist because of human ego and a desire to have them around. And the valley consumes a massive amount of scarce fresh water to raise hay for them to eat. But why is hay the top crop there? It must be easier to grow and cheaper to harvest than those other crops mentioned. As a society, do we really want to use all that water to feed horses?

Solar energy is a great concept, but it should not come to the valley with a free ride and no obligation to pay taxes. If there is no benefit for the residents in having all those solar farms, there should be no farms. Tax incentives are all well and good at times, but they must never be allowed to turn into tax holidays that last forever.

Poor IV, the ultimate in flyover country, deserves better.

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crgisme Dec. 6, 2010 @ 9:57 p.m.

"High value crops such as cotton, grains, and fruits (melons) were mentioned as coming in abundance from the area."

With the exception of cotton, all of those commodities do come in abundance from the Imperial Valley. And cotton used to as well, until several imported pests came in and prices dropped, and cotton became unprofitable.

The number one commodity that comes from Imperial Valley is actually cattle. Hay is usually number two, but in 2009 it dropped down to #5. The county is one of the top five counties in the nation for the production of spinach, potatoes, cauliflower, sweet corn, broccoli and onions. It's a top producer of aquaculture and lambs, and many more commodities. http://www.co.imperial.ca.us/ag/Crop%20&%20Livestock%20Reports/Crop%20&%20Livestock%20Report%202009.pdf

Yes, a lot of hay is grown in the desert. It's a stable, year-round crop that nearly always at least breaks even. Yes, hay is easier to grow and MUCH cheaper to harvest (which is why it usually breaks even or brings at least some profit). Vegetable crops are a lot riskier, so almost everyone grows some hay to mitigate their risk a little bit.

But very little of that hay goes to the coast to feed horses. Some of it does, yes. But that is a very, very small portion of the whole. The majority of it feeds the beef cattle that are the county's #1 commodity, or the dairy cattle that are California's #1 commodity.

As far as solar energy goes, I agree with you. It should not come with a free ride and no obligation to pay taxes. It has potential, but there are lots of other renewable energy sources with potential in Imperial Valley, too.

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nan shartel Dec. 7, 2010 @ 1:11 p.m.

give those guys back their WATER!!!!!!! :=(

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