David and Goliath in the Desert




            Most of us are plugged in and grid-tied, in our electricity use.  Even if we somehow manage not to use it at home, we must eventually walk into the dentist’s office where I bet the lights are on and the drill is idling.  The glasses we wear, the clothing, the methods of long-distance communication we use—there’s no way we are not all grid-tied.

            Where does this power come from?  The sun.  Even if we heat with wood, make our own electricity with a water-powered turbine, or put up private windmills, the sun is behind it all.  The trouble for us is that, unlike the green plants, we need more than water and sunlight to get along.  We have to translate these into food, shelter, clothing, and healthcare if we want the kind of comfort and security we need.  To do this we must convert and transport the sun’s energy to where we are, where our factories are, and our air conditioners. 

            Right now out in Arizona there is an energy transmission project marching inexorably toward construction.  It is being overseen by the BLM, Bureau of Land Management. They like to describe themselves as “your agency,” in this project, as they collect information and make decisions about the multimillion-dollar SunZia project, which will carry electricity from somewhere in New Mexico to Phoenix and points west in California. Population centers there continue to grow and to draw electricity from a system which is already coming up short.

            The SunZia project is slathered with “greenwash,” claming to provide a conduit for green energy from New Mexico where a big wind farm could some day be built to provide clean electricity to the growing western cities.

            In fact, there is no big wind farm in New Mexico, no sign of one, no proposals on the table.  The only proposal is hundreds of miles of a double line of 160-foot transmission towers, a project currently in the “scoping” process, looking for the best way to proceed.  There is no question about the rightness of granting SunZia access across state, federal, and private lands.  In the name of providing citizens with the sun’s energy in the future, the project is going forward.  In the name of speculation and huge profits for its investors, it is looking for a route that will be least expensive for building.

            The San Pedro River runs north from Mexico through Arizona in one of the longest undammed riparian systems in the American southwest. Much of its valley is considered precious and protected, its whole length is an important wildlife corridor.  The tributaries run down seasonally through biologically rich Sonoran Desert habitat, providing corridors for coatimundis, javelinas, coyotes, mule deer, quail, reptiles, amphibians, all sorts of insects, raptors and an incredible diversity of plant life.  This area is also rich in cultural resources, historic sites of the indigenous people and of the more recent settlers. 

            Opening up this area to the 1,000 foot swath for the towers will involve road-building and years of traffic. It will be construction machinery at first, but then maintenance access ever afterwards.  Huge areas of fragile lands, vulnerable to severe erosion, will be opened for the first time to all terrain vehicles looking for new areas to explore as folks head out for the popular western pastime or recreational sport of motoring through the wild lands, off-road.

            Who will look closely at the “rightness” of this project, and this route along the   San Pedro? There is a small group of citizens working overtime to become educated in all aspects of the story.  They fit this research, these meetings, this writing and phoning into their already full lives.  They are David and SunZia is Goliath.  The BLM is the government agency with the authority to approve one route over another and the Davids are insisting they be heard.  They meet with representatives from the groups and agencies involved with the project, they plan carefully and ask informed questions. They have to find their own soils maps because the BLM is not making them readily available, even though it has been tax-dollars that paid for the creation of the maps.

            The Davids travel to Phoenix to meet with the governor’s people.  They hear these encouraging words,  “Through the San Pedro?  Never. It will never be allowed to go through that valley!”  But when they meet with the federal BLM they get the runaround and feel the decision may already have been made, that all this “scoping” and opportunity for citizen input is just so much lip-service.

            You might wonder why we should care, way back east here in Monterey.  For me it is simple:  I use electricity.  I know something about the San Pedro valley.  I am afraid of the power that huge corporations have everywhere over the health of the planet, of the profit-driven “right decision.”  What will I do about it?  The Davids in the San Pedro think it might take ten thousand letters to stop Goliath.  So I will write mine.  I don’t want to see the new roads washing silt into canyon streams where rare minnows live.  I don’t like to think about raptors sitting on the towers scanning for endangered Desert Tortoises, or the yahoos out from town on their ATVs defacing petroglyphs, digging up burial sites, leaving their deep tire tracks on the desert land.  

            I need the sun’s energy, but I don’t want my use of it to make billions for SunZia by tearing up the San Pedro, or anyplace else. There has to be a way for me to walk into the dentist’s office without being party to such trammeling of the land. There must be a way for a human animal to make a decent living here on earth without wrecking the place, without making fortunes for big-time investors.  I am not yet ready to admit I should have been born a green plant!