By Arthur Lightbourn
Lane Sharman describes himself as a “social entrepreneur.”
Or, more specifically, a management and financial consultant specializing in water conservation and the development of solar farms for harnessing electrical energy throughout the sunny and water-challenged southwestern United States.
His stated personal objective is to advance the mission of making the southwest a preeminent capital for sustainability and renewable energy.
Sharman, a Solana Beach resident and fifth generation Californian, is a local partner in the Spain-based Solarpack Development Corporation and the founder of the Borrego Water Exchange.
He is also the lead organizer of the Sustainability Forum scheduled for March 4, at 6:30 p.m., in Solana Presbyterian Church’s Debin Hall.
March is Sustainability Month in Solana Beach.
The forum is directed at young people from throughout North County, 25 and younger, who are being urged to become active participants in the sustainability movement. Admission is free and a Firewire surfboard will be raffled off.
We interviewed Sharman in the editorial offices of this newspaper in Del Mar.
At 58, Sharman is sandy-haired, blue-eyed, tall and trim — 6 feet, 190 pounds — and keeps in shape surfing, swimming and lifting weights — and eating the good stuff he grows in his organic garden.
“As all of us get older,” he said, “we become a little bit more concerned about this lease on the use of our local home as well as our planetary home; and all of us who are, I think, sensitive and informed students of civilization feel that civilization is at risk right now … based on the collapsing systems that support life.”
Yet, despite the seriousness of the threat, he believes, because of the relative comfort of many in America today, “we almost are anesthetized by that comfort” compared to the concern and willingness of young people in the 1960s who challenged the status quo.
“And it concerns me,” he said, “because what they [young people] are going to take on and what they are taking on is objectionable. It’s an objectionable future in which they are also a party to the complacency by their willingness to either tune-out or unwillingness to tune-in to the opportunity to make a difference.”
Sharman was born in Los Angeles with deep family ties to both Los Angeles and San Diego County’s desert community of Borrego Springs.
His maternal great grandfather, George Jacob Kuhrts, helped launch the Los Angeles Transit Railroad.
His father was a Louisiana-born aviator pioneer who was a pilot with United Air Lines for 36 years until he retired in 1968. His mother, now 86, has been a life-long activist for social justice, women’s rights, the rights of young people, and was the former head of the San Francisco United Nations Association.
His maternal grandparents were pioneers of Borrego Springs in the 1930s.
From an early age, Sharman sensed that water was a long-term concern of his family in Borrego. The area’s total water source comes from one aquifer which, given the current rate of usage, will dry up in 50 years.
An uncle, George (Buddy) Kuhrts, was the chief land planner for Borrego Springs from the 1940s until his death in 1994, and Sharman’s stepfather was Robert DiGiorgio, nephew of Joseph DiGiorgio, founder of the struggling, grape-growing DiGiorgio Fruit Company, that clashed with Cesar Chavez over the unionization of its farm workers. Under Robert DiGiorgio, as president, the company changed its name to the DiGiorgio Corporation, ceased farming and became a leading developer in Borrego, beginning with the de Anza Country Club in 1955 and continuing until the early 1980s.
Sharman graduated high school from the Cate School in Carpinteria, California, in 1971; studied French for a year at the American College in Paris; and attended UC Santa Barbara for another year.
“Those were very challenging times towards the end of the Vietnam War,” he recalls, with lots of protests. “A very unsettling time and I was very unsettled.”
He took a job as a “chain-puller” for a year-and-a-half in a Feather River lumber mill near Auburn, Calif. It was like stepping back into the Wild West, he recalled, where disputes were settled behind the lumber mill “with good, old-fashion fist fights.”
“It helped me get my head screwed on straight, and I realized I didn’t want to pull and stack lumber the rest of my life,” he said.
After he was laid off during the recession of 1974, he resumed his university studies — earning a B.A. in mathematics and computer science at San Francisco State University in 1977.
He then launched his career in the computer field as a systems programmer with NCR in Rancho Bernardo.
In 1982, he founded Resource Systems Group as a consultant in project management and software development for corporations, professional service companies and law firms, which he morphed into Open Doors Software in 1997, developing corporate financial and security software,
After a lengthy and painful divorce and the death of his stepfather and his father, Sharman reassessed what he was doing with his life.
He was troubled by what he viewed as the increasing exhaustion of life-supporting resources.
“My work took a new focus in 2004 when I went to Borrego Springs to see if some of our family’s land in Borrego could be developed. And that precipitated an understanding of the water crisis in Borrego.
“There is not going to be any long-term viability of Borrego or any other community unless there is water certainty,” he concluded. “You can’t plan for the future if you are not certain about your water supply.
“We had owned the Borrego Water Company. We had sold the Borrego Water Company in the 1990s to the Borrego Water District and the water district asked me and a number of other citizens in
Borrego to work on developing an exchange mechanism which would allow for the exchange of water rights for development rights.”
The idea was to return Borrego’s sole aquifer, which is being overdrafted at a rate of 14,000 acre-feet per year, to a more sustainable rate of usage.
Starting in 2004, with local stakeholders, Sharman created the Borrego Water Exchange (BWX), the first independent “water bank” in the state of California whose goal was to achieve water sustainability in Borrego through the issuance of water credits based on agricultural, commercial and residential water-usage rights that could be sold and exchanged.
“In the case of development in Borrego Springs, for every unit of water that you need for a new home, you must retire two units of consumption. So they have a 2 to 1 mitigation policy and the Borrego
Water Exchange is the facilitator between an owner and a buyer of those rights. I am the arranger. I arrange those transactions.”
Each water credit,” Sharman said, “represents 325,000 gallons of water every year taken out of production in perpetuity — forever.”
“We bank water rights and water credits, usually purchased by developers who seek to offset their water use, but they can also be purchased by philanthropies and conservancies.”
Farming in the desert, he said, is understandably water-intensive. The farming community in Borrego, with 4,000 acres of land under agricultural production, uses cumulatively 70 percent of Borrego’s water supply.
“We’d like to see less farming,” Sharman said, “but we’d like to see an economic exit for farming.
“So if you’re going to give up farming, then that water right could be conveyed to another party. We intermediate the banking of that right so if there is not a buyer over here today, you can bank that water in my water bank, stop farming today but not lose your ability to sell the water right to another party at a later point in time.”
In 2006, the water district entered into a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) appointing Sharman’s BWX to manage the issuance, circulation and retirement of water credits. Shortly afterwards, a new, less friendly regime was elected to run the Borrego Water District
In 2007, the BWX brokered its first retirement of 50 acres of citrus that escalated into a contract dispute with the water district. The water district terminated its MOU with Sharman’s exchange, appropriated Sharman’s model in 2008 and is attempting to run its own version of the exchange.
Meanwhile Sharman continues to operate the BWX and, so far, in economic terms, has transferred more than $1 million in water rights.
Also, in 2004, Sharman founded Solana Energy to negotiate the development of solar farms throughout the Southwest and in 2009 Solar Energy became a local equity partner of the Solarpack Development Corporation headquartered in Madrid, Spain.
The electrical energy harnessed and generated by photovoltaic panels on the solar farms is sold to public utility companies and incorporated into the electrical grid. The farms are typically located on former agricultural lands of at least 40 acres, but unlike fields devoted to agriculture, solar farms require no water and are emission free.
Sharman currently has 150 megawatts worth of solar farms in various stages of development in California.