A new crop has begun to flourish in Imperial County and many groups want in on the harvest.

Unions, environmental groups and even farmers reaped cash settlements and jobs out of a solar boom that’s converted thousands of acres of Imperial County farmland into solar projects.

They used the state’s premier environmental law as leverage.

Two environmental groups and farmers who joined in their environmental lawsuits walked away with cash settlements. And one union sued over two projects whose developers hadn’t agreed to sign project labor agreements with its members.

CEQA, the state environmental law, gives Californians the ability to weigh in on projects and push for changes that benefit the environment. And as we’ve seen here and across the state, it’s also convenient ammunition for opponents who don’t like a project or the developers behind it, or who may want something from developers eager to start construction.

In Imperial County, a handful of groups used CEQA to extract benefits from large-scale solar projects. Yet it’s unclear whether their lawsuits resulted in project adjustments that benefited the environment.

Here’s what we do know about how CEQA was used against solar projects, and the fallout from those lawsuits.

• San Diego County-based Backcountry Against Dumps and the Protect Our Communities Foundation collectively challenged about a dozen Imperial County solar projects and negotiated $17.2 million in settlements. Most of  the projects still went forward, according to lawsuits the groups have since filed against each other. About half the winnings were set to go to the nonprofits’ bank accounts or their attorney.

• Farmers who opposed or were displaced by the solar projects were set to collect about $5.9 million.

• Backcountry Against Dumps founder Donna Tisdale’s family received $2.24 million to purchase 560 acres of land. That property is now being farmed but Tisdale wouldn’t confirm whether her family’s farming it.

Unions are eager to ink labor pacts with developers that include pledges to hire local workers and set certain pay and benefits.

• The regional Laborers’ International Union of North America chapter sued developers tied to two solar projects that one union official admitted hadn’t reached project labor agreements with his union. They didn’t sue similar projects pushed by other developers, including 8minutenergy, a company the union’s said hired many of its workers.

We know the environmental lawsuits were leveled by groups who didn’t like the projects they challenged, and that many of those lawsuits ended with payouts.

What we know less about is whether environmental changes came as a direct result of these environmental lawsuits.

I couldn’t find any obvious adjustments to solar projects that can be solely attributed to the lawsuits.

A union official didn’t return repeated requests for comment about projects his group challenged.

Leaders of two nonprofits behind most of the lawsuits are adamant their work led to tweaks that benefited both the environment and farmers. The nonprofits and representatives for the developers they sued told me confidentiality clauses keep them elaborating on specific projects.

What we do know: Settlement talks between one developer and the two nonprofits inspired that developer to request that Imperial County officials cancel its approval of permits for one solar project. That project never re-emerged but a county official noted there might have been another reason for that.

Lisa is a senior investigative reporter who digs into some of San Diego's biggest challenges including homelessness, city real estate debacles, the region's...

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