Pressure to build transmission lines imperils farmland
An increased demand for electricity and renewable energy has resulted in a number of utility-proposed transmission line projects being considered throughout the state. While farmers and ranchers appreciate the need for improving the electric grid, they worry that some of the transmission projects could treat farmland as a thruway and unnecessarily remove prime land from production.
"The pressure is on to ensure that the state's transmission infrastructure is in place. We are tracking a number of transmission line projects being proposed statewide and we urge that the utilities listen to the landowners," said Karen Norene Mills, California Farm Bureau Federation associate counsel and Public Utilities Department director. "If the line is truly needed, we encourage that its development is done in such a way that results in the least harm to farmers and ranchers."
One project designed specifically to meet a growing demand for electricity is a 19-mile transmission line proposed in Tulare County, in which the preferred route crisscrosses hundreds of acres of orchards and other private land. In May, Southern California Edison filed an application with the California Public Utilities Commission for approval of its transmission line proposal known as the San Joaquin Cross Valley Loop Project. The utility has indicated that existing transmission lines in the county are operating at or near their limits and would not be able to deliver sufficient electricity to safely and reliably serve increased demand. The project involves construction of a 19-mile, 220-kilovolt transmission line that would connect to an existing line. As part of its application, the utility outlines a preferred route and three alternatives.
Tulare County Farm Bureau Executive Director Tricia Stever said all of the proposed routes will have some impact on agriculture in the county, but Edison's preferred route, No. 1, will have the most direct impacts on permanent orchard crops such as walnuts and citrus fruit.
"Many of the tree crops will be impacted by clear cutting, topping and removal from the new right of way. It would consume nearly 19 miles of new easements and rights of way that will be taken through eminent domain," she said.
Tulare County Farm Bureau is opposed to preferred route No. 1 and has not expressed support for any of the three alternatives.
Farmland owned by fourth-generation farmer and rancher Ron Paregien is in the direct path of two of the four routes, including the preferred route. His family settled the Tulare County farm east of Visalia more than 150 years ago.
"Route No. 1 goes right through the middle of one of our walnut orchards and if this project is approved, it would take out 240-something trees of one of our better-quality orchards. This would really hurt me financially," Paregien said. "This project would knock a hole in our production and cost us hundreds of thousands of dollars just for redoing the infrastructure such as drilling a new well and installing a new pipeline."
Paregien would like the utility to pursue route No. 3, which runs north to south and impacts rangeland, some of which he also owns.
"I would rather they go through our mountain property," Paregien said. "We would lose a little bit to roads and maybe a couple of towers, but it would do a lot more damage going through the walnuts."
Stressing he's not opposed to the construction of a new transmission line, Paregien said the most logical route is one that results in fewer impacts to landowners.
"Why destroy people's property and people's property value when you can go through the hills and not disturb anything? It is only common sense," he said.
Farmer John Kirkpatrick, whose Tulare County citrus groves and home are located about 600 feet from the transmission line proposed in the preferred route, agrees.
"Agriculture will be affected in any alternative they choose, but the concern by those opposed to route No. 1, such as members of the grassroots group Protecting Agriculture, Communities and the Environment (PACE), is that an alternative be selected that least impacts agricultural production and the ability to farm," Kirkpatrick said.
Dana Bullock, Southern California Edison project manager for the San Joaquin Cross Valley Loop Project, said the utility supports working with the local agricultural community. She achhknowhledges that with the utility's preferred route
No. 1, there will be some issues with certain crops, specifically walnuts.
"We are supportive of working and mitigating anything that we can in the local community and we understand that it is an ag community," Bullock said. "There are difficulties with certain crop types. Walnuts typically don't get naturally topped at a mature height, so there are difficulties because we have certain clearances and requirements based on state and federal mandates that we have to keep."
In the last 15 years, stricter rules enforced by the National Electric Reliability Council have evolved, making it next to impossible for orchards and other vegetative areas to co-exist with transmission lines, the California Farm Bureau's Mills said.
"In incidents across the country, there have been contacts between vegetation and transmission lines that have caused outages. It is already a major impact to have transmission lines cross a property, but you add to this areas where there are orchards and that is a significant change," she said.
With renewable energy transmission such an important goal of the state of California, energy agencies and decision makers, building infrastructure to move this energy has become a top priority. In November, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger issued an executive order to streamline California's renewable energy project approval process and increase the state's Renewable Energy Standard to 33 percent renewable power by 2020.
One of the first projects designed to meet an increasing demand for electricity and deliver required renewable power is the San Diego Gas & Electric Co. Sunrise Powerlink project, an electric transmission line that would extend over 150 miles across San Diego and Imperial counties. Affected landowners in the two counties are awaiting a decision by the PUC on whether the southern route of the project will be approved or denied outright. Farm Bureau has encouraged the PUC to adopt the southern route, to minimize impact on farmland.
"The Sunrise Powerlink and the San Joaquin Cross Valley Loop are just two of many such transmission line projects that that will be proposed in California to meet future energy needs and meet renewable power goals set forth by the state," Mills said. "Landowners must do what the folks in Tulare are doing: Be engaged and pay attention when these things come up and watch it through the process."
Mills said she knows that keeping track of these projects "is time consuming and hard, but landowners have to recognize that at the end of the line, the utilities have eminent domain authority and they can roll right over them."
Mills said PUC commissioners who make the final decisions on these projects like to hear from the local communities so that they better understand the issues and impacts.
"We just have to keep identifying what the impacts are, that they are real and they are significant," Mills said. "Utilities need to actually listen to people. People support what they help create."
The California Farm Bureau encourages landowners to be aware of and stay involved in a number of transmission line projects proposed in California. Links to information about each of these projects may be found on the CFBF Web site at www.cfbf.com.
- For more information about the San Joaquin Cross Valley Loop proposed by Southern California Edison, go to www.sce.com.
- To learn about the San Diego Gas & Electric Co. Sunrise Powerlink project, see www.sdge.com/sunrisepowerlink.
- The Central California Clean Energy Transmission Project proposed by Pacific Gas and Electric Co. could potentially be 140 to 170 miles long and extend from San Joaquin County to Kern County. For more information, go to www.caiso.com.
- The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power has a number of projects in the planning stages, including the Barren Ridge Renewable Transmission Project and the Green Path North Transmission Project.
The Barren Ridge project is proposed to be located in northwestern Los Angeles County and southwestern Kern County and extend about 75 miles. To learn more about it, go to www.ladwp.com.
The Green Path North project is a proposed new electrical transmission system being developed by the LADWP, Imperial Irrigation District and the Southern California Public Power Authority. This line would deliver energy from Imperial County to the city of Los Angeles and other parts of Southern California. For more information, go to www.ladwp.com.
- The Transmission Agency of Northern California is currently evaluating the construction and operation of three transmission projects in Northern California as part of the TANC Transmission Program. For more information, see www.tanc.us.
(Christine Souza is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at email@example.com.)
Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.