Torres-Martinez tries to power up


MECCA, Calif. - The Torres-Martinez Desert Cahuilla Indian tribe has found a potential source of economic development that's not gaming related.

The tribe is attempting to locate a proposed 600 megawatt natural-gas burning power plant on tribal lands that is expected to produce 23 full-time jobs and increase local tax revenue.

The proposed plant will be owned and operated by northern California-based power wholesalers Calpine Corp. on land leased from Torres-Martinez. The tribe will receive undisclosed payments for leasing the land as well as the water rights.

The tribe has had disputes with the local water district regarding allocations of water. Representatives say the district complained they weren't using any water. Since water is needed to cool the proposed facility, it will give the tribe leverage in battles with the water district.

Torres-Martinez wants to lease 40 acres near the desert hamlet of Mecca near the north shore of the Salton Sea to Calpine. Calpine and tribal sources estimate that 20 acres will be sufficient space for a power plant of this size.

"This will be an enormous boon to not only the tribal economy but the regional economy as well," says Bobbi Fletcher, a local attorney who is acting as project coordinator for Torres-Martinez.

Fletcher estimates the plant will contribute $2 million to $4 million in property tax revenue to Riverside County annually. During construction, 250 jobs will be created for various building and trade jobs. She also says the building phase of the project should generate about $12 million in tax revenue.

Calpine will oversee the construction, but Robertson says that under a Tribal Employment Rights Ordinance (TERO) agreement, his company will seek American Indians to fill out the contract work. American Indians will also receive preference for the permanent jobs at the plant.

Greg Lamberg, director of business for the western region at Calpine, says that his company also has a training program for tribal members with some preliminary skills.

Lamberg said they've also hired tribal members to do an archeological survey in which the tribe can determine for itself if the site is culturally sensitive.

Kent Robertson, a Calpine spokesman, says many hurdles have to be cleared before the project can go through.

They include economic feasibility and environmental impact reports before the project can be given the green light, as well as the tribal archeological survey. The proposed site is on an open strip of desert - a very fragile ecosystem - which must be extensively surveyed for endangered species and soil contamination before the plant can be built.

Robertson says that if the site is not cleared, Calpine will work with Torres-Martinez to find an alternate site.

"We want to make this project with Torres-Martinez work for our mutual benefit."

The project has cleared some other initial feasibility studies. Calpine reports the general infrastructure is in place to make the project work. Necessary gas lines are in place nearby and power lines for disbursement to another substation only need to be slightly upgraded.

Tribal Chairwoman Mary Belardo said she feels this project is the first stage of economic diversification for the tribe. The tribe also has tentative plans for a small casino but wanted to do something that laid the groundwork for other economic avenues, she said.

"I'm so pleased that this happened before we got a casino," says Belardo. "Gaming isn't the means to all ends and if this projects works out we'll have 65 years of income."

The project started when Torres-Martinez heard of a similar project, also run by Calpine, at Fort Mojave Reservation on the California- Arizona border. Adair International Oil and Gas - a Houston-based American Indian-owned company that helped to set up the deal- advertised in a trade paper and Calpine was one of several companies that applied. After talking to representatives of Adair , a group of Torres-Martinez council members decided to take a look at Fort Mojave and were pleased with what they saw.

"Calpine has done a decent job, no question about it," says Gary Goforth, a Fort Mojave council member.

The Fort Mojave plant, named South Point, is under construction and is should open in 2001. The 540-megawatt facility already employs several tribal members.