By: Alisha Semchuck
PALMDALE - Open space as far as the eyes can see, the solitude and wildlife roaming through their backyard prompted Tom Hogg and his wife Judy to move to Cantil about nine years ago.
Today, they fear they could lose what they gained by their move if the developer of a proposed solar and water banking project is allowed to proceed with its plans.
The Hoggs voiced their concerns Tuesday during a special meeting of the Antelope Valley-East Kern Water Agency board of directors. They were joined by at least 25 other residents of their desert community and of neighboring Fremont Valley, some 12 miles north of California City.
Project developer AquaHelio Resources LLC seeks approval to use the water agency's pipelines to move water into the bank and out again.
"They're out there cutting trees down on land that's not theirs," Hogg said as he wiped away tears. "They've got no consideration for the land or the people on it."
"Mom's in her 80s. For the first time in her life, she doesn't know what's going to happen," said Trisan Deu Pree, whose family has lived in Cantil for four generations. "We are nothing to them. We're all a little frustrated. It doesn't matter to them.
"This isn't a solar project. This is a water grab. This is just wrong. Please protect us. We are begging you."
After listening to residents' pleas, the board voted to have agency General Manager Dan Flory draft a comment letter about the project to the Kern County Planning & Community Development Department.
Although Flory said the comment period for the project has passed, but as a courtesy between agencies, county officials could choose to include the water agency's letter in the environmental impact report on the project.
The letter from Flory would thank Kern County officials for the opportunity to comment, acknowledge the county as the lead public agency and official decision-maker when it comes to project approval and explain the water agency's role as a facilitator if the project moves forward.
"The areas we would be looking at are water quality, groundwater rights and capacity in our system - our ability to convey the water," Flory said.
He said those are some of the main concerns expressed by residents, "the water quality going into the (Fremont Groundwater) Basin, coming out of the basin and groundwater rights."
"I don't think our letter is going to bring up any new issues," Flory said. "Other agencies are saying the same thing."
During Tuesday's meeting, the Hoggs lamented the potential loss of their pristine countryside.
"We have beautiful sunrises and sunsets," Judy Hogg said.
"Snakes and mountain lions, too," her husband added.
The Hoggs and their neighbors gave a variety of reasons for resisting the proposed "clean energy" project aside from the fact that it will alter the panoramic view and peaceful lifestyle they cherish. They also expressed disappointment that AquaHelio representatives were a no-show at the meeting, scheduled specifically to give the public and the seven-member water board a presentation on the firm's plans.
The project, on 4,806 acres of undeveloped land formerly owned and farmed by the Arciero family, would transmit up to 1,008 megawatts of solar energy to homes in Los Angeles from its location 17 miles northeast of Mojave.
AquaHelio's plans, according to a notice filed with county planners, would include the construction of an estimated 3.6 million photovoltaic solar panels, along with transmission lines and towers. In addition, the plans call for a water banking element involving groundwater recharge and extraction.
AquaHelio intends to bank as much as 200,000 acre-feet per year of surface water from the Los Angeles Aqueduct, which runs from the eastern Sierra through the Antelope Valley, including the firm's property. An acre-foot equals 325,853 gallons, the amount of water used annually in the average Antelope Valley single-family household. That's enough water to supply about two-fifths of the Valley's households for a year.
AquaHelio also wants the ability to ship water outside of Kern County, a plan county supervisors rejected in 1997 when they passed an ordinance to prohibit a Santa Monica company from moving forward with a similar project.
One of the water agency's board directors, Frank Donato, who sits on a three-member ad hoc committee to study the proposal, said company representatives asked to reschedule their presentation to a later date.
If AquaHelio officials had appeared, directors said they were prepared to vote "yes" or "no" on the firm's request to use agency facilities to transport water.
"I don't think we should take any action until the presentation comes to the full board," Donato said.
"Why would AquaHelio come to you?" asked Ted Wyatt of Fremont Valley.
"Because they're in our district," Donato said. "Any time they sell water to Edwards, Lancaster, Rosamond, we have to pipe it through our district. It's not our water. We're a conduit. We're not pumping wells. We're not doing anything."