PG&E proposal a concern for Lodi farms
By Christine Souza
Farmers and vintners in northern San Joaquin County are expressing concern about an electrical transmission project they say would bisect farm properties, restrict the ability to change crops and negatively affect property values in one of the state’s top wine regions.
Growers with farms in the path of the transmission system proposed by investor-owned Pacific Gas & Electric Co. and the local municipal power provider, Lodi Electric Utility, raised concerns during a virtual meeting last week of the California Public Utilities Commission.
In interviews and testimony to the CPUC, some farmers said they understand the transmission line is needed but suggested the project be modified or that power lines be placed underground to reduce the acres of farmland that could be taken out of production.
San Joaquin County farmer Joe Cataldo, who grows 73 acres of winegrapes and cherries in Lodi, said he believes the transmission line will reduce the value of his property.
“I’ll have about 6 to 7 acres worth of ground that will have to be taken by PG&E for the five or six steel poles and access roads that are proposed on my property,” Cataldo said. “To have steel poles right in the middle of our cherries and access roads everywhere…is going to create a huge hardship. We’re already struggling as farmers as it is.”
Lodi farmer Dwight Busalacchi, who grows 20 acres of rare grape clones for specialty wineries, said his property is affected by a steel tower and a portion of the transmission line, which is near a 426-foot-deep well.
“It would cost about $160,000 to relocate the well and probably another $50,000 to abandon it,” Busalacchi said, adding he estimates it would cost half a million dollars to prepare his property for the line. “We’ll lose about $6,000 of yearly income from the grapes that have to be removed.”
Karen Norene Mills, California Farm Bureau director of Legal Services, said proponents of proposed transmission lines are frustrated about how long it takes for projects to be approved. She said this can lead to shortcuts in the outreach process by utilities that can undermine the community’s ability to provide input.
“There is tremendous pressure at the state and national levels to build out transmission lines, so it takes extensive pressure to overcome the preference to simply rubber stamp the application of the utility, in this case, PG&E,” said Mills, who has been engaged on the issue on behalf of farmers since the project was first proposed in 2015.
“The first opportunity to convey concerns about the project” is through the California Environmental Quality Act process overseen by the CPUC, Mills said. “If the process is fairly conducted, community concerns can be addressed, yet still allow the project to move forward.”
The Northern San Joaquin Transmission Project, formerly known as Northern San Joaquin Power Connect, would include almost 11 miles of new transmission lines, access roads, new and modified substations and other upgrades.
The purpose of the new 230-kilovolt transmission system is to address the San Joaquin County region’s reliability and capacity issues identified by the California Independent System Operator.
The CPUC is due to conduct an environmental review before deciding on the project.
Addressing utilities commission representatives, farmers talked about impacts to their operations during the project construction, which is expected to take several years.
Dave Simpson said PG&E plans to use a portion of his property as a staging area as it builds what he described as “a major construction project.”
“We have 28 acres of winegrapes that are going to be impacted by the construction of this project,” he said. “They want to use a 20-foot dirt road between two vineyards, which is enough to turn a grape harvester, and they want to use that for I don’t know how long.”
Simpson also argued that transmission lines should be put underground or that existing transmission corridors be improved instead. “There needs to be a better way,” he said.
His wife, Sandy Simpson, said the project will decrease property values and negatively impact “the ambiance of the Lodi wine country that the city of Lodi and farmers have been trying to capitalize on to make this a viable destination, which it is becoming more and more.”
With about 40% of the state’s premium grapes grown in Lodi, the viticultural area is touted as the “winegrape capital of the world.” Lodi growers produce more than $450 million in winegrapes annually, said Amy Blagg, executive director of the Lodi District Grape Growers Association.
“A lot of families have been grape growers for generations and have opened small wineries, so the aesthetics of having a transmission line through the property doesn’t really lend to that as well, so there’s a lot of concerns and questions about alternatives,” Blagg said.
The project is happening at a time when farmers are having to make hard decisions about their futures, Blagg said.
“We have a lot of growers right now, just as markets change, looking at pulling out a vineyard and determining what alternative crops they could grow,” she said. “The overhead lines limit their ability to plant alternative crops such as trees.”
Jim Grady, who farms almost 50 acres of winegrapes in Lodi, said the transmission line bisecting his vineyard “will make aerial application of sulfur impossible.” After late-spring rains, Grady explained, farmers must aerially apply sulfur to mitigate mildew and mold.
Katie Koepplin of Lodi said the project would affect two of her properties and cause her to lose a portion of a cherry orchard. She and others who addressed the CPUC expressed dissatisfaction with the lack of outreach to the community during the process.
“We were not informed of any of this happening until about three years ago, so we missed many of the beginning meetings, and we were not able to have any input because we were not aware of them,” Koepplin said.
PG&E provided outreach to the community at a workshop in 2019, but then “everything went quiet,” Blagg said.
Last September, when many farmers were harvesting winegrapes, Blagg said, PG&E submitted its preferred route to the CPUC. Locals said they learned the project was revived after noticing a letter stapled to a telephone pole. Weeks after making phone calls, farmers received letters informing them of the proposed project.
“There’s just so much wrong with the way this was handled,” Cataldo said. “I have a lot of questions that I need answers to.”
Many shared concerns about the project’s impact on aesthetics and Lodi’s viticultural area, which attracts a few million visitors annually.
Cataldo said he wonders whether he’ll be able to achieve his goal of adding a tasting room on his property in the coming years.
“If you’ve got this beautiful vineyard and skyscape, and then all of a sudden there’s huge, industrial metal and concrete towers buzzing over our property,” he said, “that’s going to be a game changer.”
The Public Utilities Commission may approve the project as proposed or make changes. The agency is expected to make a final decision in 2025. The project is planned to be operational by 2029. Public comments are due Feb. 9.
To learn more, visit https://ia.cpuc.ca.gov/environment/info/ascent/NSJTP/pdfs/CPUC_NSJTP_NOP.pdf.
(Christine Souza is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.)