Walnut growers infuriated by tree trimming

Issue Date: May 11, 2005
Kate Campbell

Linden walnut grower Ray Owning surveys pruning disaster in his orchard.

Linden walnut grower Ray Owning was sickened when he went into his orchards after Pacific Gas & Electric contract crews finished pruning his trees last winter. The utility company routinely sends tree-trimming crews onto private farms and ranches to secure the overhead right of way for its power lines.

Owning, a farmer for more than 50 years, said he has never seen anything like what happened in his orchard. And he is not alone in his concerns. About 30 growers in the area are enraged over the severity of the pruning damage and the economic losses they face.

"In some cases trimming the trees involved cutting the whole side out of a tree without rhyme or reason," Owning said. "Some of these trees have been trimmed down to 6- to 10-feet tall. Some are outside the right-of-way and cut at random."

"I've been here for 30 years and this is the most severe (pruning) I've seen," said Frank Debenedeti, a Linden walnut grower and a Diamond of California director.

Debenedeti, along with more than a dozen local growers, hired Floyd Perry, formerly with University of California Cooperative Extension, to take an unbiased look at what happened to the trees. Perry said in his report to growers that it is obvious the pruning has adversely affected the farmers' ability to successfully grow and produce walnut crops in the right-away areas.

"Walnut trees older than six or seven years of age were so severely cut that any measurable crop will be eliminated for the next two or three years," Perry said. "Even if the trees were not pruned again, it's doubtful that production can recover during this time frame. Certainly there will be nothing to harvest if this type of pruning is repeated annually.

"It seems to me there is a better way of achieving the desired results at less costs to PG&E and hopefully with less adverse effects on growers' trees," Perry concluded.

Growers are in the process of filing damage claims with PG&E and preparing to sue the company and its contractors for what they call "butchering" their trees. Some estimates have put the damage in the Linden area orchards at more than a half million dollars.

PG&E said the trees had to be cut back from the 230-kilovolt power lines that cross over farming operations. Branches touching the lines could cause a fire or a power outage and threaten delivery of power to thousands of the utility's customers.

"Whatever the regulations say, and I get a lot of different answers, trimming does not mean coming in and breaking all a tree's branches," Owning said. "PG&E has been given too much power in this situation and they're not being held accountable for this damage.

"They come out and tell you, 'We have the power. We own the right-of-way.' That may be true, but let's talk about supervision. What you see here is 50 to 70 cords of wood and a lot of stupidity."

PG&E operates about 118,000 miles of interconnected transmission and distribution lines. The company said it inspects every mile of its lines to identify trees needing trimming or removal. These inspections are done on foot by what PG&E calls "qualified individuals," and said about 75 percent of them are "qualified arborists."

The company's yearly tree trimming budget is about $146 million and state fines imposed on utilities for outages can range from thousands to millions of dollars, PG&E said.

Emily Barnett, PG&E government relations representative, said PG&E foresters and arborists are trained in the cultural practices of commercial walnut crops and that she understands growers' position.

When it was pointed out that the growers who are upset have produced crops in the Linden area for 50 years, Barnett said, "They're not supposed to, that's the unfortunate part. That's why we bought the easement rights."

Growers say their understanding of the easement restrictions are for overhead access, 30 feet from the ground. Some of the easements were negotiated as early as 1915 and the height from the ground varies slightly from one document to the next.

When it was pointed out the clearance in Ray Owning's orchard after the recent severe tree trimming was more than 30 feet, Barnett said, "And you've measured those clearances? I've gone out there. I was out there with Senator (Mike) Machado and all our arborists and everything.

"Look, the farmers had the option to plant other things besides walnuts, which are probably one of the fastest growing trees," she said. "They could plant shorter kinds. There's a smaller kind of a walnut tree that has less of a height."

Barnett also said that PG&E doesn't have the problem of upset growers in other parts of its service area, and that it's a problem in Linden because walnut trees grow so fast. There have been, however, additional grower reports and photos from other parts of the state, including those in the service area of Southern California Edison.

"Unfortunately, the reason we have to do this is to meet federal and state guidelines," Barnett said. "There's always the claims process if someone thinks we've done something inappropriate, which in this case we don't think we have."

Karen Mills, California Farm Bureau Federation director of public utilities and associate counsel, said there are a variety of rules and regulations that impact the rights and responsibilities of the parties in right-of-way situations.

For example, the California Public Utilities Commission has regulations about the minimum clearance requirements at the time of trimming. Overlaying those rules are Occupational Safety and Health Administration guidelines that dictate how close workers can be to the lines as they trim trees.

"And, now with the national focus on reliability of electric service, there may be further requirements imposed from nationally based reliability entities," Mills said. "Many of the easements granting the transmission rights-of-way have been in existence since the early days of the last century. It's very important that the existing rules and regulations are clearly communicated to all affected parties—along with an appropriate way to implement them.

"We need to ensure a process that is consistent, equitable to the growers and provides a effective system for complaints and resolution of disputes," Mills stressed. "We're trying to work with PG&E to identify problems associated with the easements and find remedies to them."

(Kate Campbell is a reporter for Ag Alert. She may be contacted at kcampbell@cfbf.com.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.