The following was originally published in the June 2, 2015 edition of the Inyo Register. It is reprinted here with permission.
by Jon Klusmire
Special to the Inyo Register
INDEPENDENCE, CA — A personal approach that tapped into a shared history of past battles and victories was credited with delaying for a decade the industrial scale solar power project that kicked off an 18-month public debate in Inyo County about the future of the solar power industry in the county.
An alliance of Inyo County residents and organizations, and the Los Angeles based Manzanar Committee, came together to battle the solar project in 2014, in a move that resembled a similar effort 25 years ago to out-maneuver the Los Angeles Department of Power (LADWP) during the long struggle to establish the Manzanar National Historic Site.
In both instances, the key players included a prominent Los Angeles politician and the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power.
In late 2013, LADWP announced it would develop a 200-megawatt photovoltaic solar power project covering 1,200 acres of the Owens Valley floor, about three miles east of the Manzanar National Historic Site. Shortly thereafter, Northland Power also announced plans to build a similar-sized plant just north of the LADWP Southern Owens Valley Solar Ranch (SOVSR).
Complaints that the LADWP project would not only be visible from Manzanar, but would also diminish the experience of visitors to the site, were discounted. The Los Angeles Times editorialized that the visual impacts would be minimal, and the project should proceed. Despite the local opposition, that type of backing, coupled with the fact the County was unable to regulate a City of Los Angeles project on L.A. land, made it appear there was little chance of altering or stopping the $680 million solar project.
With those plans on the table, throughout 2014, concerned citizens flocked to public meetings about the LADWP project and also filled hearing rooms as Inyo County embarked on creating a comprehensive solar power element for the County General Plan.
Then, with no fanfare, in March of 2015, LADWP acknowledged it would be delaying any decision regarding its SOVSR for at least a decade, to 2024-27, as it assessed its options, including changing the location and size of the project. Northland also suspended its project.
Activists in Inyo County and Los Angeles said they consider the turning point in the battle against the large-scale solar projects came during a meeting with Mel Levine, president of the LADWP Commission. Members of the Manzanar Committee, the Owens Valley Committee (OVC), local Paiute tribes, and citizens attended the meeting.
As related by Daniel Pritchett during the Owens Valley Committee annual meeting, the key moment came when Gann Matsuda, a member of the Manzanar Committee, reminded Levine of the very personal, and painful impact the World War II internment camp imposed on those imprisoned there, many of whom were from Southern California. Plus, the Manzanar site continues to have an extraordinary place in the lives of the camp’s survivors and their descendants, and in California and American History. That has always been a powerful and poignant story.
Pritchett related that the emotional impact of Matsuda’s words was visible, as it appeared that Levine seemed close to tears.
While there is no definitive link between that meeting and the subsequent decision to delay the LADWP solar project, Pritchett and other activists are convinced that the personal appeal weighed heavily on the decision. “We owe a great debt of gratitude to the Manzanar Committee for stopping the bulldozers.”
Bruce Embrey, co-chair of the Manzanar Committee, told the OVC that the Owens Valley represents “hallowed ground” for the families of internees imprisoned in Manzanar. The “special relationship” between the residents of the Owens Valley and the Japanese American community began in the 1980’s and 1990’s, during the contentious battle to place the National Park Service in charge of Manzanar.
Numerous Inyo County residents and officials worked on the years-long effort to establish Manzanar National Historic Site, he said.
Despite the local support, getting “the Goliath” LADWP to relinquish ownership of the site was a struggle, noted Embrey. The agency proposed various ideas to commemorate the camp—including installing monuments, caring for the site itself, and a variety of payments, called “bribes” by Embrey, to the Manzanar Committee.
None of LADWP’s proposals included giving up the land to the federal government. Sue Embrey, Bruce’s mother and co-founder of the Committee, was adamant that the federal government, not Los Angeles or LADWP, should be responsible for telling the Manzanar story. Expressing “righteous anger,” she told the city’s representatives that, “the federal government, not the City, put me behind barbed wire.”
The effort moved to the U.S. Congress in the early 1990’s, with competing legislation regarding Manzanar. One bill, backed by L.A. and LADWP, would have effectively blocked any move to make Manzanar part of the National Park system, Embrey said.
Then-Los Angeles Congressman Mel Levine sponsored the competing bill, which authorized creation of the Manzanar National Historic Site. In 1992, Levine’s bill passed, was signed into law, and in 1997, the Park Service bought the site from LADWP.
So, as Embrey noted, Levine was extremely familiar with the Manzanar story, and his contribution to the effort to create the historic site. The irony of battling LADWP in the 1990’s and leading LADWP in 2015, when Manzanar and LADWP were at the center of a controversy, was not lost on him.
LEAD PHOTO: At an April 1, 2014 press conference, held on the steps of the Inyo County Courthouse in Independence, California, stakeholders called on the Inyo County Board of Supervisors to protect the Owens Valley from large-scale, industrial renewable energy development. From left: Alan Bacock, Big Pine Paiute Tribe, Mary Roper, Owens Valley Committee, Bruce Embrey, Manzanar Committee, Meredith Hackleman, Metabolic Studio. Photo: Judyth Greenburgh.
Jon Klusmire is the Museum Services Administrator for the Eastern California Museum in Independence, California, which houses an extensive exhibit about Manzanar.
The Manzanar Committee thanks Inyo Register Editor Darcy Ellis for granting permission to reprint this story.
NOTE: Gann Matsuda is the editor of the Manzanar Committee’s official blog.
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