The SunZia Southwest Transmission Project’s long, winding road to commercial operation is facing a new round of controversy, this time from an array of community groups that fear the huge transmission line will inflict irreparable environmental damage, fundamentally disrupting wildlife and the livelihood of residents along the central Rio Grande.
The $2 billion project aims to build two 1,500-megawatt high-voltage lines running 520 miles from central New Mexico to Arizona to carry wind-generated electricity to Western markets, but it’s been riddled with controversy since developers first proposed it in 2008.
Opponents question how much renewable energy it would actually transport, whether wind developers using the line can realistically find markets for up to 3,000 megawatts of wind-generated electricity, and whether the benefits for New Mexicans are worth the environmental costs.
The project did successfully navigate a huge hurdle in 2015, when the U.S. Bureau of Land Management approved rights of way to cross federal property in New Mexico and Arizona.
But that process was bogged down for years because the U.S. Department of Defense opposed line crossings through sections north of White Sands Missile Range. To resolve the impasse, SunZia agreed to bury five miles of lines to avoid any interference with military tests.
The project has also received licenses and permits in Arizona. But it still needs approvals from the New Mexico Public Regulation Commission, the State Land Office, the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District and the Army Corps of Engineers.
In addition, the BLM must approve SunZia’s plan of development for construction, including detailed avian protection and migratory bird conservation measures along the Rio Grande, before allowing the project to proceed.
SunZia had made little local news since receiving the BLM rights of way. But the company filed for PRC permits this spring, thrusting it back into the public spotlight.
High on the list of community concerns is the project’s proposed river crossing at Escondida, near Socorro. Opponents fear it would be a death trap for migratory birds that forage and roost in the area, because it would cross a narrow passage between two wildlife refuges – Sevilleta National Wildlife Refuge to the north and Bosque del Apache to the south – said Cecilia Rosacker, executive director of the Rio Grande Agricultural Land Trust.
“That’s some of the last wetlands left in New Mexico, and it’s critical to continental bird migration,” Rosacker said. “We’ve been working 20 years on the local level to protect birds, including endangered species.”
About 350 species use the Middle Rio Grande, with tens of thousands of birds flying back and forth at dusk and dawn between foraging areas and their roosts on the river during migratory periods. Many will inevitably fly into with SunZia lines, potentially converting the river crossing into a snare that could regularly kill and maim birds, Rosacker said.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates that between 8 million and 57 million birds are killed nationwide every year when they hit electric utility lines.
Opponents contend the BLM never specifically studied impacts from the Escondida river crossing in its environmental impact statement on SunZia.
But the BLM and Fish and Wildlife did review about a half-dozen proposed crossings south and north of Escondida, including a detailed study at San Antonio,near Bosque del Apache. It concluded that crossing at the narrowest point, near Escondida, would have the least impact.
A biological assessment at Escondida, plus the BLM’s mandate for avian protection and conservation plans, are part of the BLM’s impact statement, said SunZia Project Manager Tom Wray. And the BLM is reviewing SunZia mitigation measures, such as placing day and night reflective diverters on the lines to scare birds away and creating new foraging zones away from transmission infrastructure.
BLM is now also reviewing the precise location of the river crossing, said Melanie Barnes, BLM state director for resources.
“When the environmental impact statement was done, there were still various pieces of SunZia that needed to be pinned down,” Barnes said. “Now that they have been pinned down, we’ll look at the environmental impacts. … If the impacts differ from what’s in the EIS, we’ll take a closer look.”
That process will include some public input, Barnes added.
Wildlife groups want SunZia to bury its lines at the river, something SunZia says could be more environmentally damaging than overhead transmission.
“You’d have to tunnel under the entire wetland area, not just the river itself,” Wray said. “That would lengthen the crossing significantly and could affect the operation of the entire waterway.”
But opponents say mitigation alone can’t fully protect migrating birds as they fly, feed and nest in the area.
“I don’t see how you can mitigate it, given the primal nature of these birds, and there’s not another river they can use,” Rosacker said. “Wherever it crosses, the line should go under the river to minimize impact in the corridor.”
For Socorro County officials and landowners, the impact of the transmission lines and towers on wildlife, land, vegetation, cultural and archaeological resources could undermine the area’s quality of life and income.
The Middle Rio Grande is heavily dependent on tourism, and obstructing open ranges with electric infrastructure could gut the region’s livelihood, said Tommy Lee, whose family ranch northeast of Socorro would be crossed by SunZia.
“The line would go right through our ranch and create an eyesore,” Lee said. “We have 70 miles of unobstructed view shed in every direction, and this area is a breeding ground for elk and deer. It’s open country, with trees and valleys.”
Of the 320 miles of land SunZia would cross in New Mexico, 90 miles is on private lands, with 86 owners.
Developers have reached easement agreements for 74 miles, representing about 80 percent of landowners, Wray said. Negotiations continue with the remaining ones.
Some ranchers fear that SunZia could resort to eminent domain if agreements aren’t reached.
To do that, SunZia needs backing from the Renewable Energy Transmission Authority, a quasi-governmental agency established by the Legislature in 2007. SunZia has a memorandum of understanding in place with RETA, but before the agency would consider any eminent domain request, it would assess whether all possible alternatives have been exhausted, RETA Chairman Robert Busch said.
“If SunZia were to apply for use of eminent domain, the RETA board would consider it, but only after developers have tried everything else under the sun,” Busch said. “RETA has never used its power of eminent domain, and its goal is to never use it.”
SunZia wants to cooperate with all landholders, Wray said. It’s already asked the BLM to modify six routes after negotiations.
“I think we’ll reach agreements,” Wray said. “It’s our desire, and it’s the best outcome for everybody. We’re expending all efforts to bring that about.”
Project supporters say SunZia would provide needed transmission to harness wind generation on New Mexico’s gusty central and eastern plains for export to Western markets.
Opponents, however, question whether there’s enough demand in California and other states to absorb up to 3,000 megawatts of new wind generation. They suspect SunZia could end up transporting far more electricity from natural gas plants and possibly other fossil fuels than renewable energy.
But global wind developer Pattern Energy has already signed on as the anchor tenant to use 100 percent of capacity on SunZia’s first 1,500-megawatt line from wind farms it’s building in central New Mexico to supply California markets. It currently sells 324 megawatts of wind generation to California Southern Edison from a wind farm in eastern New Mexico. And in mid-July, the company announced two new power purchase agreements with other California utilities for 200 megawatts from future wind farms connected to the SunZia project.
Still, developers need to address community issues, said Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., a strong SunZia supporter who also serves on the Migratory Bird Conservation Committee.
“I care deeply about mitigating the impacts of development on wildlife with any project,” Heinrich told the Journal in an email. “SunZia is required to take those mitigation steps and I will work with all stakeholders to ensure those efforts are well thought out and effective.”
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