Our Power Future

The Imperial Irrigation District's Path 42 power lines run from a substation in the eastern Coachella Valley to a Southern California Edison substation in the west valley.

Where the east Coachella Valley gets electricity could change. Here’s why

99-year deal with IID expires in 2033

Tom Coulter

Copyright 2023 The Desert Sun

With the century-long contract that has governed electricity in the eastern Coachella Valley nearing the end of its lifespan, local officials are starting to weigh their options. The major question: whether they’ll stick with the Imperial Irrigation District, the only power provider most residents have ever seen.

Officials say they’re looking to ensure the regional power grid can handle the population growth forecasted for the valley in the coming years. In La Quinta, those discussions started this week.

Imperial Irrigation District, which is based in Imperial County, provides power to several public entities in eastern Riverside County, including La Quinta, Indio, Coachella, Bermuda Dunes and other unincorporated areas, as well as small parts of Palm Desert, Rancho Mirage and Indian Wells.

The utility offers the electricity under a 99-year agreement with the Coachella Valley Water District, but that contract is set to expire in 2033.

While a final decision is likely still far off, the La Quinta City Council held a study session Tuesday to consider the different routes the city could take. Riverside County’s Local Agency Formation Commission, or LAFCO, is doing a study of the options for future electrical services and IID governance in the region. And it wants cities that get electricity from IID to weigh in.

What are the city’s options?

City officials focused on three main possibilities during the meeting Tuesday:

  • Enter into a new contract with IID while gaining board representation for the eastern Coachella Valley: The current IID board is made up entirely of representatives from Imperial County, where the agency manages a massive allocation of Colorado River water for farming. The lack of local representation on the IID board has been a sore subject for some in the Coachella Valley, including former Assemblymember Chad Mayes, who proposed legislation aiming to get some Riverside County members on the board. That bill was vetoed by Gov. Gavin Newsom in 2021.
  • Find another entity to provide the service: Such an approach would require the city to know how much it would cost for another entity to buy its existing infrastructure and connect to the grid.
  • Form a municipal utility authority: The city has the ability to create a municipal electric utility on its own, or as part of a joint powers agreement that includes other public agencies, though it would need to know the cost of the infrastructure to be transferred from IID.

Costly upgrades needed

While the agreement between IID and CVWD was signed nearly a half-century before La Quinta was incorporated, the Coachella Valley now represents more than 60% of IID’s ratepaying customers. However, its equipment “was not designed and planned to handle the growth that has occurred in the Coachella Valley,” according to a city staff report submitted to the council Tuesday.

“Intensified electrification by our current customer base is pushing transmission and substation capacity to the limits,” the report states.

Any potential upgrades would be extremely pricey: An estimated $800 million is necessary to increase transmission and build the substations required for near-term growth in the east valley, according to the city report.

“So, consideration must also be given to funding the necessary upgrades, which may include the sale of bonds and a rate increase to customers, with programs in place to help those on fixed and low incomes that might not be able to afford high prices,” the report states.

Power grid’s troubles hampering new development

While the contract doesn’t expire for another decade, councilmembers agreed Tuesday that it’s crucial for the city to begin seriously surveying its options and engaging with residents now.

La Quinta Mayor Linda Evans, who described the city’s electrical infrastructure as “a deteriorating beast,” said the grid’s current capacity has hampered some developments, with project managers being asked by IID to pay millions to install a substation to support their construction plans.

Long-time councilmember John Peña agreed, saying the issue has caused an “economic stalemate” in the eastern Coachella Valley.

“Developers can’t proceed forward with projects unless they spend millions of dollars up front, which is not feasible,” Peña said.

The city already has a few initiatives underway that should shed more light on its main options, including an “undergrounding study” to gauge the feasibility and cost of putting its full electric infrastructure and wiring in the ground, City Manager Jon McMillen said.

Members were keen on keeping the issue in the spotlight, with Peña and others suggesting the creation of an ad hoc committee in the near future and emphasizing the importance of communication across cities and agencies.

“This is the most unique circumstance in the entire state,” Evans said. “There’s some similarities with certain cities not allowing power in other cities, but this is a one of a kind.”

Tom Coulter covers the cities of Palm Desert, La Quinta, Rancho Mirage and Indian Wells. Reach him at thomas.coulter@desertsun.com.