If San Diego Gas & Electric Co.’s proposed Sunrise Powerlink transmission line winds up going through Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, a recent report says, it may scare away the animal that graces the park’s logo: The Peninsular bighorn sheep.
And there may be no way around that.
An environmental-impact report prepared by state and federal agencies concluded that the project would disturb 88 acres of bighorn habitat, and suitable replacement habitat may not be available nearby to make up for it.
Even if suitable lands can be found, the report said, the noisy helicopters used in the construction of transmission towers, the presence of new access roads to the towers and the constant crackling and buzzing of 500-kilovolt wires could persuade the bighorn to permanently leave the area where the power line would come through.
“If you ask me … it is not worth the risk,” said Mark Jorgensen, Anza-Borrego park superintendent.
The report released Jan. 3 was prepared by the California Public Utilities Commission and the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, agencies that must give permission before SDG&E can build the $1.3 billion project.
A decision is expected by late summer.
SDG&E provides electricity to virtually all of San Diego County and the southern one-third of Orange County.
The utility’s new line would deliver 1,000 megawatts, boosting the region’s electricity supply by about 20 percent. During cool times of the year, that is enough electricity to keep the lights on in about 750,000 homes, but much more is required to power air conditioners during summer heat waves.
SDG&E essentially wants to build a 150-mile superhighway of electricity between El Centro and Carmel Valley.
The project would have 91 miles of 500-kilovolt wires and 59 miles of 230-kilovolt wires. A kilovolt is 1,000 volts.
The utility’s preferred route would wind through Ranchita, Santa Ysabel, Ramona and Rancho Penasquitos, and nearly 25 miles of Anza-Borrego park.
At 600,000 acres, Anza-Borrego is the largest state park in the United States outside Alaska. It is famous for its clear, unobstructed, panoramic views, as well as several oases of native fan palms.
The park also is known for being a refuge for the endangered desert population of the bighorn sheep, which lives in the so-called Peninsular mountain ranges that extend from Palm Springs to the U.S.-Mexico border. Indeed, the park is even partly named after the bighorn sheep: Borrego is the Spanish word for the animal.
Still, a visitor is more likely to see the bighorn’s mug on a photo or park sign than to see one of the animals roaming the rugged Anza-Borrego backcountry.
“They’re incredibly elusive,” said Ernie Cowan, outdoor editor for the North County Times, who has extensively photographed the animal. “They are masters of blending in with their environment. But when you do see them they are majestic … they are magnificent animals.”
Cowan, who is set to publish this week a book on Anza-Borrego, said the wild sheep are skilled at living in a beautiful but hostile hot and dry environment.
“Their ability to scramble up a practically vertical mountainside in moments is astounding,” he said. “They move with seemingly effortless speed up the side of a mountain.”
As skilled as they are at living in their natural environment, however, they aren’t very good at living around humans and the things they build.
As the 7,000-page environmental report put it, the bighorn is a true wilderness animal.
And, so, rather than adapt to towering metal poles up to 160 feet high, the 40 to 50 bighorns that live in the Grapevine Canyon area of the park might well move on – and put pressure on bighorn groups elsewhere – if high-voltage wires are strung through it, the report says.
There also is a chance the animal could view the power line as an obstacle to avoid at all costs and refuse to travel back and forth under it, the report states.
“If that line goes through, it will divide the northern and southern herd, which could be very detrimental for their breeding,” said Diana Lindsay, vice president of environmental affairs for the Anza-Borrego Foundation and Institute. The line “would intrude into an area where they can freely roam.”
But, the report says, it is difficult to state with any certainty how the bighorn would react.
So much is unknown, said Jorgensen, the park superintendent. “Nobody knows what a bighorn sees or what it hears,” he said.
What the region’s leaders do know, however, is that the high-voltage line would be a huge presence. Its steel poles would be three times higher than the wooden ones there now, he said.
And they would carry wires much bigger – and much louder – than the quiet 69-kilovolt line that has crossed the park for decades.
“The 500-kilovolt line has so much juice going through it that it actually makes noise and sparks,” Jorgensen said. “There is a sparkling and crackling going on on this thing all the time.”
Jorgensen said it is also known that the bighorn is on a precarious perch in its bid for survival, at a time when its home is increasingly being encroached upon by human activity.
“You’re talking about a remnant population. You’re talking about greatly reduced habitat, not only in California but all over the West,” he said. “And you’re talking about throwing more threats at that population.”
Before the Gold Rush, there were as many as 2 million bighorn sheep spread throughout the Western states, and today there are only about 40,000, Jorgensen said.
The Peninsular bighorn represents a tiny fraction of that total. According to the environmental report, the population has rebounded to about 700 in the Southern California desert, and as many as 450 of them live in Anza-Borrego park.
The 700 figure represents a significant rebound from the total of 280 that were counted in 1995, Jorgensen said. But it is still well below the 1,200 total from three decades ago, he said.
“We’re on a good upward trend,” Jorgensen said. “But their future is not secured yet and there is no shortage of proposals on how to encroach on their habitat.”
By Dave Downey
13 January 2008
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