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County supervisors protest BLM’s SunZia route

The Cochise County Board of Supervisors agreed to submit a letter of protest of the route selected by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management that permits SunZia Southwest Transmission, LLC., to install two parallel power lines that will run through the northwest corner of the county and the Lower San Pedro River Valley.

Supervisor Ann English, chair of the board of supervisors, explained that the county had to have its notice of protest filed by July 15 and to meet that deadline, she submitted a letter to the BLM. Now she needed the approval of Supervisors Pat Call and Richard Searle, which they gave.

Last year, the supervisors requested the BLM use another route through Graham County, to minimize impacts to sensitive rural communities, disturbance to cultural or paleontological areas, as well as impacts to the fragile riparian habitat along the San Pedro River.

The letter approved during the July 23 Tuesday states: “In addition, we expressed our concerns related to the Buffalo Soldier Electronic Range, protected by Arizona Senate Bill 1387. The test range relies on an extremely quiet electro-magnetic spectrum for missions of Fort Huachuca in testing electronic equipment vital to military missions and the protection of military personnel in theater.”

The range is situated within unique mountain topography that eliminates emissions that could affect the Fort’s work. The BLM accommodated the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico, but not Fort Huachuca.

English pointed out to the BLM that the additional costs of the extra 28.2 mile stretch would increase the cost of the project and therefore would cause an increase in utility bills for end users.

She also emphasized that the BLM recognizes that the new lines would reduce land values by 10 percent or less.

“Cochise County can not and will not depend on the BLM and the Arizona State Land Department to protect its interests. Cochise County has special expertise with respect to the impacts the SunZia project will have on lands within the county’s jurisdiction,” she continued.

“As a result, we are filing this protest and requesting that the state director’s decision be overturned and substitute Sub-route 4B,” English concluded.

The supervisors had no objections to the project and supported SunZia’s effort to improve grid and take on alternative energy inputs.

The SunZia project

The 515-mile long project consists of running two new 500 kilovolt (kV) transmission lines that will start near Corona, N.M., and end near Coolidge, passing through the county. One line is for alternating current (AC) and the other may be used as a direct current (CD) line for new solar, thermal or wind power generation stations that may come online in the future.

The BLM states on the website providing the Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS): “The purpose of the proposed project is to transport electricity generated by power generation resources, including renewable resources, to western power markets and load centers. The project would enable the development of renewable energy resources including wind, solar, and geothermal generation by creating access to the interstate power grid in the Southwest.”

Within the FEIS, the recognition of dangers to migratory birds during construction are mentioned: “Transmission lines may interfere with Sandhill Crane and waterfowl migration routes and lead to increased line collision risks within the Sulphur Springs Valley. An avian impact study was conducted in the Rio Grande Valley to assess the effects of potential collisions. Results of the study predicted that while potentially fatal collisions of Sandhill Cranes and other large birds are likely to occur, a substantial effect at the population level is unlikely for any species.”

BLM also notes that there may be impacts to the Southwestern Willow Flycatcher’s proposed critical habitat at the Lower San Pedro River crossing.

Mitigation measures to reduce the risk for collision of large birds include methods to improve visibility by using bird diverters on groundwires and guywires.

Road construction and habitat loss may impact the Sonoran Desert Tortoise within the San Pedro River Valley, as well.

In spite of those concerns, the BLM prefers the route through Cochise County following the San Pedro River north.

The BLM’s impact statement says this preferred route would parallel and maximize the existing utility corridors and infrastructure, while minimizing impacts to sensitive resources, river crossings, residential and commercial uses and military operations. Additional mitigation measures will continue to be developed as the project moves forward.

It continues: “In consideration of public input and analyzing the consequences of the Project proposal, the BLM has identified a (route), approximately 515 miles in length. It is estimated that approximately 185 miles, or 36 percent of the right-of-way would be located on federally administered lands in New Mexico and Arizona. To the extent feasible and practicable, the proposed SunZia Project transmission lines would be located along existing transmission line corridors and designated utility corridors on federal land.”

A typical span of 1,400 feet requires three to four towers 100 feet to 175 feet high, the document notes.

In Arizona, between $18 million and $19 million would be generated by income taxes, and between $6 million and $13 million would be generated in property tax revenues during construction. During operations, annual income tax revenues would be between $300,000 and $700,000, and property tax revenues would range between $10 million and $25 million, according to the BLM.

SunZia Transmission has agreed to the BLM route and is ready to proceed with the project, said Ian Calkins, spokesman for the project in Arizona.

“While this was not the route we originally proposed, we respect BLM’s decision which was based on analysis of facts rather than emotions, and strikes a good balance between many competing interests,” said Calkins. “We knew we wouldn’t get all we wanted in this process. Many stakeholders have varying opinions about routes but still recognize the need for improved energy infrastructure in America.”

For a complete version of the BLM’s Final Environmental Impact Statement, visit http://www.blm.gov/nm/st/en/prog/more/lands_realty/sunzia_southwest_transmission/feis/feis_docs.html.

[Carol Broeder of the Arizona Range News contributed to this report.]