The sun beat down and the support vehicle had a dead battery. Kelly Fuller nonetheless decided to press on. It was already mid spring, and if she was going to complete her 78-mile trek through the desert and San Diego's backcountry before the daytime temperatures went into the triple digits, she had better complete the 10 miles she'd planned to cover that day.
Fuller was not traveling the Pacific Crest Trail or any other well-known route. She had chosen a path that is the proposed route of what she believes could be a source of environmental degradation and an eyesore, SDG&E's proposed Sunrise Powerlink, a transmission line that would snake from the Imperial Valley through the Anza Borrego State Park, into San Diego's power grid.
Even as she left the support vehicle behind, she felt confident. She is an experienced hiker, and she and her team had traveled her entire route in a jeep to check out the hike. As she says, "In the desert, you don't want to have any surprises." The link would be 150 miles long, but, because most of the line passes through private property in its western segment, she hiked the 78 miles of its eastern portion.
David Hogan, the director of the Urban Wildlands Program, a division of the Center for Biological Diversity that fights urban sprawl, suggested the hike to Fuller back in March of this year as a way to make the people of San Diego County aware of the effects this power line might have on the environment, the park and the communities it would pass by or through. Despite having an injured leg, she enthusiastically agreed, but she remembers thinking more than once, This is no small undertaking. What have I gotten myself into?
As she pressed on that day, the fourth of her journey, those doubts came back to her as the weather took on a "brought to you by David Lean" quality. "The wind was starting to blow and it turned into a sandstorm," she recalls. "The air turned white. There, for about four hours, it got very intense." She made a mask of a kerchief to keep from breathing the dust and pressed on.
Fuller completed her planned 10 miles through the sandstorm, although the sand had completely worn the mirror finish off her sunglasses that day. A few days later, she finished her hike, all 78 miles of it, in Warner Springs. A crowd of well-wishers that included her mother was there to greet her and celebrate her success.
She is long since off the trail but has continued her fight to keep the Powerlink out of the desert. "There are alternatives," she says, including conservation efforts. She also sites what is known as the Garamendi Principle, part of California law that stipulates that use of an existing right-of-way is to be chosen for power lines when it is economically and technically feasible. She thinks that if the Powerlink is built, it should follow an existing route of high power lines, instead of a new one that would require de-designation of state wilderness land inside the park.
After spending much of her career in theater, and then working as a technical writer, Fuller is now pursuing a doctorate degree in literature. Her work on the Powerlink has taken away a lot of time from her dissertation, but it was her chosen study-Mary Hunter Austin and her writings about the Southwest-that inspired her environmental activism.
This is not the first time Fuller challenged the big powers. She was part of the Sierra Club's effort to nix the wind-power farm proposed for Volcan Mountain a few years back. "My role," she says, "was to notify the local residents that the federal government was likely to approve wind-energy testing on public land inside their community without their knowledge or consent, unless they did something about it."
The way Stephanie Donovan explains the Powerlink, it sounds like an environmentalist's dream, what a person like Kelly Fuller would support. The Powerlink is proposed to connect San Diego to "renewable solar, geothermal, and wind resources that are yet to be tapped," says Donovan, a spokesperson for SDG&E. "It has three benefits, the three Rs: reliability from 2010 and beyond; renewable solar, geothermal and wind, that are all yet to be tapped; and reduced costs. It gives us greater flexibility from older, less reliable power sources."
Donovan says San Diego's power grid was taxed to its limit because of the extremely hot weather this past summer, making the Powerlink project all the more necessary. "This demonstrates San Diego's need for safe, reliable electricity for all our customers," she says. The Community Alliance for the Sunrise Powerlink, an organization that includes business interests and the San Diego-Imperial Counties Labor Council, was formed to support the proposed power line. San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders also supports it.
In August, SDG&E, addressing environmental concerns, revised part of the plan for the Powerlink. Although still going through the park, the new plans have the Powerlink going underground through portions of Ramona and Rancho Penasquitos.
"SDG&E has been a good environmental steward, and we're proud of that," Donovan says. "And it's a matter of balance. We try to consider all of a community's needs. We're making our best effort to get the public's input and the concerns of local communities."
Fuller believes that promoting the Powerlink as an environmentally friendly project is just a way of making a bad idea sound good. "We believe that this might be green window dressing," she says, noting that the Powerlink is designed to go to a Mexicali substation, that is emission compliant under Mexican law but wouldn't fully comply under California law. Fuller points out that the power line is planned to follow a route that takes it close to the border and the existing power station in Mexicali, a route that looks impractical if it were going to the solar and geothermal stations.
The pollution from the Mexicali power station is only part of the environmental degradation that Fuller anticipates from the Powerlink. "It's not just the power lines," she says. "There will need to be new access roads built into the desert. We're also concerned about the disruption to archaeological sites. We're concerned about de-designating state wilderness to extend SDG&E's easement inside Anza Borrego."
Apparently, the powers that be in Imperial County are similarly suspicious of the green claims. On Sept. 5, the Imperial County Board of Supervisors voted 4-0, with supervisor Wally Leimgruber absent, against the Powerlink, citing much the same concerns as Fuller. Supervisor Joe Maruca voiced the board's concern that the Powerlink would be used to import power from Mexicali, encouraging the development of more power plants across the border. They believe these Mexicali power stations, without the restrictions the U.S. puts on emissions, will lead to greater pollution for Imperial County.
As to the Powerlink going to Mexicali, Donovan responds that the power lines for SDG&E are interconnected, so the Mexicali station does not need the Powerlink.
SDG&E claims it has the right-of-way to construct the new power line through the Anza-Borrego State Park. "There is an existing power line from the 1920s, an SDG&E line that, as a matter of fact, predates the park," Donovan says. "This gives us the easement for the Powerlink. We plan on using as much of this existing easement. Those areas have already been impacted environmentally, and that diminishes the environmental impact that the Powerlink will make. It's also been proposed to make the spans longer so as to reduce the number of towers needed. This will reduce further the environmental impact. We're 100-percent committed to the environment."
But the state Department of Parks and Recreation has their disagreements with SDG&E's position. In a statement issued for a pre-hearing conference, the department objects that the proposed link differs in too great a manner from the existing power line. "This project is not just a matter of increase in degree, but a major order of magnitude impact to visual resources," the statement reads. The existing line is made of creosoted wooden poles and stands between 40 and 50 feet tall. The Powerlink would have steel towers that average 130 feet above the desert floor. The statement goes on to say that part of the reason state parks are here is to give people beautiful places to visit. The 140 towers, cutting across 23 miles of the park, would spoil the vistas of the Anza-Borrego.
The Parks and Recreation Department objects to the plan also because it would pass close to the Tamarisk Grove campground, degrading the experience of nature for campers. Additionally, the Anza-Borrego State Park supports 400,000 acres of wilderness that is supposed to be "untrammeled by man," left relatively undeveloped except for campgrounds. Park officials say the proposed power line is inconsistent with the park's mandate and that, if it goes through, would "set a dangerous precedent that would mean that State Park lands and State wilderness are merely held in trust by the State of California until such time as they may be needed by private developers or utility companies."
The state Public Utilities Commission (PUC) has scheduled the pre-hearing conference in Ramona on Wednesday, Sept. 13, at Olive Pierce Middle School, beginning at 4 p.m. Steven Weissman, an administrative law judge with the PUC, will preside over the parlay, with communities and other interested parties, such as the Sierra Club, giving testimony. Another hearing, in which any member of the public can participate, is scheduled at the same time.
Fuller tries to get the word out on the hearings and the ability of the public to participate. She nonetheless grows frustrated. "SDG&E has been going to city councils, targeting communities that aren't going to be affected by it, to give the impression that a majority of people are for it. The public didn't know their city councils were voting to support this project, and the councils were voting without knowing the project's cost or where the final routes were. Citizens are out of the loop. This has been a stealth campaign."
In a report issued last month, the U.S. Department of Energy described Southern California's power grid as critically congested and in need of additional capacity to transmit power to consumers. The report did not weigh in on the Powerlink, but recently passed legislation from Congress allows the federal government to step in if they deem it necessary. Kelly Fuller may have a bigger fight on her hands.