GOLDENDALE – Hitching two bales of hay to his beat-up 1992 Dodge Ram pickup, Brian P. Fletcher drags breakfast to his cows across the windswept ranch that has been in his family since 1946.
Dogs Becky and Sheila ride along in the bed as the Little Klickitat River rushes in the distance through pine trees that Fletcher estimates are 200 years old.
The pastoral life is in Fletcher’s blood – a picture inside the farmhouse shows him at age 2, bottle-feeding a goat. But the tranquility is marred by looming economic realities.
Every year, Fletcher has to sell more cows and goats to keep up with the bills. And although he loathes the idea, he has considered subdividing to capitalize on what many in the area consider the most valuable asset of their land: the views.
“I’m a farmer at heart,” he said. “That sticks in my craw. I’ll probably have to do it, but I don’t want to.”
Throwing even more uncertainty into his life, there are now orange survey stakes running north and south along his fence line, marking a proposed power line route.
Driven by the growing generation of wind power, the Bonneville Power Administration is proposing a 500-kilovolt transmission line spanning the Columbia River and Klickitat County. One of the proposed routes straddles his and his neighbor’s fence.
The 28-mile line, called the Big Eddy-Knight, would run from The Dalles, Ore., to a new substation about four miles northwest of Goldendale. The right-of-way would be 150 feet wide with towers up to 250 feet high.
The federal agency has suggested three routes, all of which traverse swaths of private property, make some use of existing routes and cross the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area.
Although the agency is attempting to limit the environmental impact, no matter where the line is built somebody will be unhappy about what it will do to the scenery.
“This will sure ruin the place,” Fletcher said.
Wind farms need transmission lines
The agency is trying to respond to new requests for transmission. Since 2008, utilities and producers – most of them wind-power generators – have added 1,150 megawatts of electricity to a nearly overloaded transmission grid.
“New service is being asked for,” said Brad Johnson, a BPA spokesman. “A great deal of that is wind.”
Production has reached such a critical point that BPA operators and producers worry that lines will become overloaded. That could mean blackouts, Johnson said.
Already in Klickitat County, operators at the largest wind farm in the state, built by San Diego-based Cannon Power Group, have been working with the BPA on a system that allows them to quickly take turbines offline if transmission can’t keep up with spikes in generation.
Klickitat County alone has permitted 1,700 megawatts of new generation, more than half from wind farms already built.
More transmission capability will open the door to additional turbines, said Mike Canon, economic development director of Klickitat County, the state’s leader in wind-power production.
“It gives us a chance to go further,” Canon said.
In fact, construction of new turbines in the area already has slowed because of the lack of transmission, said Gary Hardke, president of Cannon Power, which built the state’s largest wind farm: 176 turbines putting out 400 megawatts of electricity.
Cannon’s mammoth development stretches for 26 miles of ridgeline that runs south of Goldendale overlooking the Columbia. Construction has started on four more.
The company has plans for another 100 to 200 megawatts elsewhere in the county, but has put them on hold because “there was no near-term transmission solution,” Hardke said.
Just 10 years ago, abundant transmission capacity, thanks to hydropower, was one of the Columbia Gorge’s biggest draws for wind power – aside from the wind, Hardke said.
“The whole area up there has been such a huge success,” he said.
Because of hydropower, lines crisscross the area already, the largest carrying 345 kilovolts. The BPA’s proposed 500-kilovolt line would dwarf them.
All of the BPA’s options cross the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area, a stretch of river and land in both Oregon and Washington set aside for preservation by the federal government in 1986.
Generally, transmission lines are allowed under the scenic area guidelines, but wind farms aren’t. The western edge of Cannon’s project stops short of the scenic area. The U.S. Forest Service will review the proposed project to make sure details are consistent with the management plan for the area.
Federal law requires the new development to blend in visually with the natural surroundings, said Michael Lang, conservation director for Friends of the Columbia Gorge, a Portland nonprofit that helped pass legislation creating the scenic area.
He wonders how that’s possible with 250-foot towers.
“Making something that large visually subordinate … is virtually impossible,” he said.
So far, his group favors the eastern route because it’s the only option that would not require new easements within the scenic area boundaries and steers clear of the regions with the most sensitive plant life and the heaviest recreational use.
When it proposes to cross private property, the BPA must negotiate a one-time, fair market value price to buy the right-of-way.
Right now, the BPA also favors the eastern path, which crosses the river just west of Wishram along existing power line routes, then blazes a new trail north just east of Centerville, an unincorporated community southwest of Goldendale. The BPA’s Johnson said the eastern option is the best combination of environmental and economic concerns.
The western route, on the other hand, would travel mostly along existing lines but would require a new river crossing just east of The Dalles, leaving the biggest new footprint of the three on the scenic area.
Max Fernandez, a sheep rancher and a major Centerville landowner, said he favors the western route because it would cross mostly public lands, limiting the need to get easements from farmers like Fletcher.
The route would cross some of Fernandez’s land, but he doesn’t mind taking it on the chin for the sake of other Klickitat County farmers, he said.
“Asking for new easements is just crazy,” Fernandez said.
But that’s what will happen to Fletcher and his neighbors if the BPA ultimately chooses the eastern route.
Fletcher said he and his sister, who owns the property with him, had planned to continue farming. He doesn’t know if the lines will affect their work, but they might disrupt plans for new irrigation lines.
Either way, the project “steals land from us,” he said.
“I don’t like it.”