When is Green Development Not Green?

Travertine Point as imagined by its developers | image from the project's draft EIR

Combine historically low traffic with abundant undeveloped land at low prices (at least by Southern California standards) and regional governments hungry for economic development at any cost, and you get what the Coachella Valley is, increasingly, becoming: an inefficient, low-density, car-centric megasuburb.

The Coachella Valley is a Petri dish for sprawl. Valley developers try to create commercial neighborhoods with a "downtown" feel, but their one real success -- El Paseo in Palm Desert -- is oriented more toward convenience in luxury shopping than living one's daily life. Palm Springs' vibrant downtown predates the car culture by a couple of decades, but even there you've got to get in a car to get to the grocery store, the nearest of which is more than a mile from downtown.

You'd think that in this suburb on steroids, any plan to build a more pedestrian-centered, compact neighborhood -- where people could leave their cars at home some of the time -- would be a sensible and ecologically wholesome move.

You'd be wrong.

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Location of the proposed Travertine Point development | image from the project's draft EIR

The Travertine Point "new town," on the northwest shore of the Salton Sea astride the Riverside-Imperial county line, would occupy about 4900 acres of what is now mostly agricultural land. About 1400 acres of the total is part of the Torres-Martinez Cahuilla reservation, which band is heavily invested in making the development happen. Most of that portion of the project's footporint is undeveloped. Adjacent to the east edge of Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, the development - which has been on the drawing board for the last few years - would eventually house more than 37,000 residents in a mixed-use, walkable planned community. In the rather grandiose words of the main developer, Black Emerald LLC:

Imagine a place that captures the essence, security, and friendliness of a small town. Imagine a place that respects the rich natural history of the Salton Sea, the Coachella Valley and the cultural heritage of its earliest inhabitants. Imagine a place that embraces the unique setting and natural beauty of the land, the sea, the sky and the sun. Imagine a place that provides this generation with the ideal opportunity to live, work, shop, raise a family, recreate, and learn, while ensuring that the needs of future generations are not compromised. Imagine a place that captures that same philosophy of stewardship and embraces the principles of 'Sustainable Development' and 'Green Building'. This is the Vision of Travertine Point. A new community, a "New Town" in fact, that while grounded in tradition and respect for the past, holds a bright and shining promise for the future.

The development would include mixed retail and commercial space; housing of varying densities; a resort area with a hotel, spa, conference facilities and potential Torres-Martinez casino, an upscale RV park, and a golf course; "open-space corridors" along current agricultural waste drains; and a marina that will be built, according to the developers, "[assuming] the successful restoration of the Salton Sea as presently proposed by the Salton Sea Authority."

That's a tall order, and developing Travertine Point as a new city will in and of itself make restoring the Salton Sea even more unlikely. The Sea, a relict of a massive Colorado River flood a century ago, is replenished by agricultural runoff from Imperial Valley farms, and irrigation water for those farms is at its limit. Developers in Imperial County routinely come up with new ways to use water, and the Imperial Irrigation District routinely tells them there isn't any new water to use.

At "build-out," Travertine Point would consume about 8,400 acre-feet of water each year. About 5,000 of those acre-feet, according to the project's draft Environmental Impact Review, will come from the Coachella branch of the All-American Canal, which shunts Colorado river water to the valley.

Assuming the developers can actually obtain rights to that much Colorado River water, that would be about 5,000 acre-feet a year converted from ag to urban use. The developers tout the fact that water use per household is expected to be about half the average for Riverside County. That's an admirable goal, but it does mean less runoff into the Sea, making restoration marginally less likely.

Urban use of Colorado River water is a significant obstacle to Salton Sea restoration. Many Imperial Valley farmers are projected to retire their lands in coming decades, selling their water rights to urban users. With less ag runoff, the Sea will likely dwindle, leaving exposed saline mudflats behind.

The resulting wind-driven dust, which the draft EIR admits is a known carcinogen, will degrade air quality even further in the already polluted Salton Basin, which will likely dampen public enthusiasm for buying homes along what was a seashore.

For drinking water, Travertine Point's developers expect to use about 3,500 acre-feet of groundwater, pumping it from the already oversubscribed Whitewater Subbasin of the Coachella Valley's aquifer.

New traffic is another serious flaw in the Travertine Point plan. The area is served by neither mass transit nor freeway. Developers expect almost 200,000 new vehicle trips each day at buildout, and yet a four-lane limited-access highway, State Route 86S, provides the only access to the area. The Developers engage in a bit of wishful thinking in the draft EIR:

State Route (SR) 86S is a committed statewide and international (North American Free Trade Agreement [NAFTA]) corridor with a variety of service benefits. The bisecting route provides options to local, including Travertine Point, land uses ranging from residential to businesses. The highway is recognized statewide as critical, as it is the only future parallel route to I-5. The future expansion of Mexicali, Mexico, as the United States' largest point of entry will surely keep SR-86S as a well-funded infrastructure link. SR-86S is destined to become a federally designated Interstate highway because of its pivotal role in interstate and international commerce. With the ongoing improvement of the transportation linkages between Tijuana and Mexicali on the Mexican side of the border, SR-86S only becomes that much more necessary as an international commerce highway.

SR 86S near the development site | Creative Commons photo by Ken Lund

Counting on state funds in California's current funding climate to upgrade and maintain what is now a marginally adequate highway is probably not the most sound transportation strategy. Neither is the developers' "solving transit issues by remoteness" strategy particularly sound. One of the long-term assumptions on which the developers base their traffic projections is that the remoteness of the project, combined with availability of local options for shopping and recreation, will deter a significant number of vehicle trips. This strategy will seem familiar to fans of one particular 1960s-era British urban-planning series:

…but Southern Californians are more likely than most people to think nothing of driving fifty miles for a fast-food burger. In any event, the project may not be remote for long as Coachella Valley sprawl keeps sprawling.

That's really the main issue here: every new development in the Valley brings with it "edge-effect" degradation of the surrounding land. Travertine Point abuts the state's largest State Park, the Santa Rosa and San Jacinto National Monument, and California's largest lake. The likely impacts to wildlife, including a number of protected species, have prompted environmental groups and State Parks to draft letters of opposition to the project. Cultural resources in the area, such as rock art and other evidence of prior land use, have already been vandalized or otherwise damaged due to increased public access; bringing in ten thousand or so bored teenagers looking for something to do in a small isolated planned community is unlikely to make the problem better.

Plenty of small aspects of the project are laudable, at least on paper: the mix of development types, the emphasis on non-motorized transport, the projected mix of moderate-income and resort housing. The need for economic development on the Torres Martinez reservation is hard to dismiss as well. But given the vacancy rate in existing towns in the Salton Basin -- you can still find two bedroom condos in stylish Palm Springs for less than 100K, for instance -- it's hard to imagine any benefit Travertine Point might provide that wouldn't be better addressed by filling in the empty spaces within Coachella's and Imperial's existing cities.

About the Author

Chris Clarke is a natural history writer and environmental journalist currently at work on a book about the Joshua tree. He lives in Joshua Tree.
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It seems simple enough to consider whether or not the need for this kind of development outweighs the damage that it will inflict on the environment. With all development there will be some environmental cost, but I don't hear the developers talking about anything that would offset the destruction it will inevitably cause. Of course, these days, it's practically de rigeur to give homage to concepts like "sustainability" and "green living". However, there's a world of difference between acknowledging that these concepts are important and making the responsible decision not to build here if the changes you wish to make will damage these fragile lands.

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Thanks for the comment, bint! As it happens, taking into account the environmental damage of a project is part of the law, and in many cases — endangered species law being an example — developers often have to "mitigate" their projects by buying additional land outside the project area and setting it aside for protection.

While this looks good at first glance, it rapidly becomes an issue of just writing a check. So many of the big solar projects in the desert have tried to find mitigation land for the desert tortoise that there isn't much left. And in any event, the criticism could be made that Mother Nature doesn't accept checks.

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Great piece, Chris. Keep them coming.

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Hmm. Those are rather inescapable realities about this situation. It's also a very good argument for why the default position should be leaving these lands undeveloped.

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Thanks for the link to my petroglyph photo! As for the article, What major company is moving into the area to create jobs for all those people? It isn't a very "green" plan if the commute is over 15 min. Do most people realize the water of the Salton Sea is orange? Your lake side home will have a view of an orange lake with dead fish on the beach. I would love to read the brochure that softens that image.