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Kerry Starr, general manager of Purcell Jojoba International, worries the 1,300-acre, desert-plant farm will be condemned for an SRP power plant. / David Wallace, The Arizona Republic

BOUSE, Ariz. -- The light breeze spreads a cloud of yellow pollen from rows of scraggly jojoba bushes. As he bounces along in a pickup, Kerry Starr watches over workers preparing for the summer harvest.

Things are looking good at the farm outside of Bouse, about an hour south of Lake Havasu City, which makes the news rippling through this remote desert area so troubling.

Phoenix-area utility Salt River Project has identified the area as a near-perfect candidate for a large nuclear or natural-gas power plant to serve the electricity demands of its nearly 1 million customers. Officials don't anticipate needing additional power from such a plant for a decade or more, but they have begun planning for a project that could take years of permitting and construction.

SRP has begun offering Purcell Jojoba International and other property owners cash for their land. Few want to sell.

Building a nuclear plant could take a decade or more, while a natural-gas plant would be much quicker, but utility officials emphasize that they have neither determined what type of plant they want near Bouse nor set a timeline for when they would build it. They also could build a plant elsewhere before pursuing the Bouse project

But Starr, the farmworkers and several dispersed residents in the desert area believe they are living on borrowed time because even if they hold out on SRP, they know the municipal utility, a subdivision of the state, can use its powers of eminent domain to take their land for market value.

"This farm is on the way up," said Starr, who manages the operation. "Then this SRP thing comes up, and it's so heartbreaking for the people working on this."

SRP has made offers on about a dozen neighboring properties, and three or four landowners have shown a willingness to sell, said Janeen Rohovit, SRP's liaison to rural counties.

"We are not in any kind of hurry with this project," Rohovit said. "It is so far into the future what we are looking at."

Rohovit couldn't estimate when the utility might close on those sales, and said SRP is not rushing to take any of the remaining properties through condemnation, although she acknowledged that is an option.

"We are not invoking those terms," she said. "We would pursue condemnation only as a last resort."

Condemnation is a court action that governments can use to take property they deem necessary for public use, including for power plants, although SRP more commonly uses the tactic as a last resort to build power lines. Defendants can appeal a condemnation in court.

The Purcell jojoba farm has millions of dollars invested in its plants, and it can't easily start over on a new site. The shrubs, which can grow to 10 feet, produce a special wax used in expensive cosmetics. They don't produce their waxy seeds for four years after being planted, and they continue to produce until they are 35 or so.

The farm is nearing 40 years old, and has planted several varieties over the years. It is just beginning to turn over some of the oldest plots with new saplings, while also starting to reap the profits from those planted just a few years ago.

Farm officials are debating whether to invest $1 million or more into the next round of new plantings, unsure if they will be around long enough to harvest their investment.

The only advice the utility has provided the farm is to proceed with business as usual.

SRP initially offered the Purcell farm $1.5 million for its 800 acres. The farm also operates on about 640 acres leased from the state, officials said.

"They are so far off of what this farm and what it produces is worth," Starr said. "They were about $18.5 million off."

Memories tied to land

Some residents prefer not to sell their land because of sentimental, not financial, reasons.

Patricia Stanphill, 69, bought dozens of acres outside Bouse 20 years ago to get away from the small business she runs in Yuma. She spent the first few years living in a tent, building a small home from wood salvaged from a Colorado snow fence.

An American flag waves over a sign reading "Pristine Ranch" near the entrance to the driveway.

Eventually, she bought a mobile home formerly used as a local schoolhouse and refurbished it. She's got more work to do. "But I'm running out of steam," she said, rumbling along in a golf cart to show visitors the small circle of rocks she built as a chapel on the property.

Her father's ashes are kept in a jar amid the carefully aligned stones. Next to his are the ashes of her sister, neighbor, ex-husband and several friends.

"I built this chapel to get married in one day, then everybody started dying," she said. "It's where I want to die."

The $100,000 SRP offered doesn't come close to covering the sentimental value of the land, she said.

If SRP exercises its power of eminent domain, it will offer Stanphill market value for the property. She acknowledges she might not live to see that happen, but intends to leave the property to her six grandchildren, who visit frequently.

"The government shouldn't be able to come in and take it for the raw land," she said.

Power demand

SRP officials said the Bouse area is ideal for a power plant because of its location and the plentiful groundwater in the region.

"Water, that is definitely an attractive aspect of that (land)," said Tom Cooper, SRP's director of resource planning and development. "Anytime we are looking at new generation solar-thermal, gas or nuclear, water is one of the essential pieces you need to have. It is a good spot for that."

Both SRP and Arizona Public Service Co., the other major utility serving the Phoenix area, said they expect the Arizona economy to grow enough that they eventually will need morelarge power plants to meet the demand, but that time is at least a decade away.

Once they get to that point, it's unclear what type of power plants they will construct, but both would like nuclear power to be an option. In the meantime, the utilities will build natural-gas power plants to meet the growing peak demand in summer. Sometime in the 2025 to 2030 time frame, they will be looking for so-called "baseload" power plants that run all day every day, not just in the hottest hours of summer.

"Given the current environment around coal, that wouldn't be on the list for new baseload resources given the new EPA regulations for new (coal) resources," Cooper said. "We would consider nuclear, natural gas, but in terms of ranking those, it really is going to depend on a couple other factors."

Nuclear power uses lots of water but has no carbon emissions contributing to climate change. Natural-gas prices can be volatile, but those plants can be built to use less water than coal and nuclear.

"My understanding is there is a sufficient resource there to support those resource types in terms of water," Cooper said.

SRP also has turned to geothermal and biomass power sources for baseload generation, and APS gets power from a solar-thermal plant near Gila Bend.

SRP has no plans for additional largesolar plants, but that could change in the next decade, Cooper said. The Bouse area would work for that, too.

"We look for the one (site) that gives the most flexibility, which gives you the ability to react quickly and economically," he said. "Then you are not pinned into one resource option."

When APS released a forecast in 2009, it included the potential to build a nuclear plant when demand dictated sometime in the 2020s. But Jim Wilde, APS director of resource planning, said the company's current plan doesn't even forecast for a baseload power need until about 2030, and nuclear is not being planned.

"There is no additional nuclear in our plan and no additional coal in our plans right now," he said. "To the degree that (coal) technologies can improve, and new coal can pass EPA's proposed regulations, we will evaluate that in time."

McDonald said APS would need strong public support to build more nuclear. "We will not be in the first wave (of new nuclear plants)," he said. "We will be after it has been proven that it can be built on time, on budget, and most importantly of all, that the American people want it."

The landowners near Bouse hope that day never comes, and plan to fight if it does.

"This is just a quiet, simple way of living with nature and living with God," Stanphill said, standing on the porch of her wooden home and taking in an uninterrupted view of the mountains.

She hopes the landowners stick together to convince SRP to look elsewhere. "If the farm sells, then us little people don't stand a chance," she said.



Copyright 2014 USATODAY.com

Read the original story: Desert enclave girds for power-plant battle

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