A READER WRITES: 2021: A Year’s Review on the IID Board

One year ago this month, I was sworn into to the Imperial Irrigation District Board of Directors and elected its vice president. As the board’s youngest member in its 110-year history, and elected by voters with the highest margin of victory in a generation, our community placed their trust in our Valley’s future in me.

As I was reminded in my election last year, trust has been eroded so deeply and for so long. One community member wrote to me at the time, “Remember your electorate has been lied to and screwed over for many years. You are the new kid on the block now, and we are watching carefully. We have pinned a lot of hope on what you will do next. Please don't disappoint us.”

This past year I have felt it my duty to honor the trust you have placed in me — and not to disappoint — and have worked to exceed the expectations made of me. I submit the following as my report to you as a brief review of the works accomplished as your IID Director and Vice President in 2021.

Resolution to Coachella Valley concerns

The single most impactful issue this year was Assembly Bill 1021 and IID’s response to it. IID’s history of power service in the Coachella Valley is a long and complicated one as an irrigation district formed primarily to serve water to Imperial Valley while also serving power to a once small, and now burgeoning, set of communities in the Coachella Valley.

Sixty percent of IID’s electric customers reside in the Coachella Valley outside of IID’s water service area, which also serves as its electoral boundaries. AB 1021 was the fifth bill in the California Legislature since 2003 to attempt to address a perceived lack of representation for Coachella Valley customers by remaking the IID board by placing Coachella Valley representatives on the irrigation district board with a say on power — and water — matters.

As the bill progressed in the Legislature, and as the 99-year lease partly enabling IID’s service in the Coachella Valley came closer to its expiration in 2033, it was clear to me that something had to be done, and be done differently, to protect IID, our water and the Imperial Valley, which IID was formed by the people to serve.

The board voted to support my proposal for the creation of the Coachella Valley Energy Commission as an alternative to the bill that would allow IID to work closely with Coachella Valley elected officials and other stakeholders on near-term and long-term energy issues and planning. Ultimately, AB 1021 was vetoed by Gov. Gavin Newsom and our ongoing stakeholder-led process through the commission provides the sole forum to develop local solutions to a local problem that gives IID and our stakeholders the ability to collaboratively resolve issues and plan for the future of our region.

The commission, which I chair, is now undertaking the important work of planning for the 2033 expiration of a current 99-year lease agreement, developing creative solutions to facilitate new growth in the Coachella Valley, and working to resolve governance issues in a mutually beneficial manner.

Throughout the year, I also spearheaded efforts to better improve our relationships and communications with our Coachella Valley customers with town halls following two extreme weather-related outages, a current grant application for the $44 million replacement of the K-Line besieged by the same extreme weather events, and a coordinated plan with the Riverside County Emergency Management Department to enhance our combined emergency response efforts to customers.

Serving customers and communities

I’m particularly proud of the repayment program we designed that in less than a year has paid off over $13 million in unpaid pandemic power bills racked up during the prior board’s shutoff moratorium while also connecting customers with substantial state and federal assistance.

The Arbor Day Resolution I drafted has already established an energy conservation-focused free tree program for customers that has the potential to plant 1,500-plus trees in 2022 alone in addition to planting 300 trees in three years at pay stations and facilities.

Working with our water and IT departments and irrigation customers, we launched an app for customers to much more easily report and get even more rapid results on needed fixes along IID’s 3,000-plus mile, 120-year-old irrigation system.

Meeting community requests for beautification, we were able to a develop new policies to allow customers to install decorative wraps and address graffiti on electric transformer boxes.

I was able to prioritize the Beech Canal project in the 2022 budget, a project which has been planned for many years without execution. The project will improve service to irrigation customers by expanding capacity while also improving safety in Calexico by taking water directly from the All-American Canal rather than several miles of open-channel through the middle of town.

IID owns a number of historic buildings and I’ve been able to preserve the historic character of the headquarters building during recent rehabilitation, and am working toward making beautiful and historic, albeit shuttered, buildings in several downtowns in both the Imperial and Coachella valleys open for public use and enjoyment.

In partnership with the Seeley County Water District, Imperial County Farm Bureau, and the County of Imperial, I was able to pool resources in a collaborative project to restore the neglected Robert Bates Memorial Park in the heart of Seeley for the enjoyment of the community.

Western water and power shortages

The summer of 2020 was plagued by rolling blackouts across California and the west caused by the regional transition off of traditional and reliable power supplies to more limited and variable renewables. IID was impacted by one such event in September 2020 when expected purchased power from the CAISO service area never came through. When I came on the board, I worked alongside President James Hanks to ensure IID’s customers would not again have to face the risk of unreliable power when the temperatures reached 117+ degrees.

We implemented the 2021 Summer Energy Readiness Plan which provided reliable power from outside California and also developed energy conservation programs to manage demand. Despite all-time record peak demand from IID customers and extremely limited energy supplies regionally, customers enjoyed fully reliable power throughout 2021 without a single disruption of service due to insufficient power. For the summer of 2022, we are building off of these efforts to ensure the same reliability as 2021 while doing more to better manage summer costs by dramatically reducing energy cost adjustment factors in the highest use summer months.

The first shortage in the history of the Colorado River was declared this year. As the newly appointed Colorado River Board member representing IID, I was able to connect with water users and agencies across California and the west in advance of the renegotiation of key agreements that govern the Colorado River to work to adapt to drought and aridification while protecting our rural and agricultural community whose lifeblood is water.

Raising standards

At the outset of my term, I sun-shined $10,000 per month consulting contracts for individuals that even prior board leadership admittedly described as a “reward.” Closed session meetings, once inappropriately filled with lobbyists, consultants and members of all departments sitting through every item, were reformed in my first meeting to abide by the spirit and letter of the Brown Act.

One of the quieter achievements was my success in the revision of a power line construction contract that resulted in substantially improved response times and reduced costs substantially compared to a prior board-directed alternative.

It has been an important priority of mine that IID more actively and seriously seek state and federal funding that is and has been available, but seldom sought. The federal infrastructure bill provided such an opportunity, and throughout the spring I worked with staff to develop short lists of projects that would be prime candidates for federal funding once the law is implemented in 2022. Those early preparation efforts have laid the groundwork for the successes we will seek in the coming year.

After nearly a decade hiatus, I reinstituted invocations at the start of IID meetings, rotating clergy and faith leaders across the Imperial and Coachella valleys to lead the district in a moment of prayer for wisdom and blessings for our communities.

In the Red Hill Bay dispute with the County of Imperial, I refreshed our legal team’s focus and recollection of Water Code Section 1013(a) which protects IID from Salton Sea liability associated with the state’s insistence on IID signing onto the 2003 QSA water transfers, in addition to holding steadfast that only the publicly elected IID board, and not unelected administrative agency staff, have “sole discretion” over managing Imperial Valley’s water.

I also have continued to work with the board and staff on reinstituting an annual strategic plan at IID that enables longer-term strategic thinking and action on key priorities outside of day-to-day operations.

End of the beginning

This year has not always been easy, but the work of serving the people of Imperial Valley in this capacity has brought such fulfillment and purpose that it makes the sacrifice — and occasional slings and arrows — worth it, especially when knowing that the noblest motive truly is the public good. I am thankful for the opportunity to have served to that end this first year, and look forward to continuing in the year ahead.

JB Hamby is the IID Division 2 director.

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