For BPA, where to draw the line

Transmission line gets new focus, urgency as property owners worry

By Eric Florip, Columbian transportation & environment reporter

Published:

 
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WHAT IS BPA?

The Bonneville Power Administration is a federal agency that manages the Northwest power grid, including several Columbia River dams. The BPA's sprawling transmission system covers all of Washington, Oregon and Idaho, plus parts of Montana, Wyoming, Utah, Nevada and California.

The power marketing agency brought in more than $3.2 billion in revenue in 2011.

From 500 feet up, much of the route looks rugged and remote. The proposed footprint of a new high-powered transmission line crosses large swaths of forestland as it snakes through east and north Clark County.

For Dave and Kelli Merriman, the project is more than a line on a map. They hold a different view: The view out their living room window.

“That’s all going to change drastically. It’s not going to be the same,” said Kelli, sitting in the family’s home off Sunset Falls Road. “You can’t put a price on this.”

As the Bonneville Power Administration narrows its focus around the proposed 500-kilovolt line through Clark and Cowlitz counties, the level of detail in planning has increased. So has the level of urgency for the landowners whose properties sit along the preferred route identified in November. At least one citizen group has hired a Seattle-based law firm, preparing for a legal fight.

The line would stretch 79 miles between Castle Rock and Troutdale, Ore., connecting new substations at each end. The so-called Central Alternative lands in mostly rural areas, crossing the Clark-Cowlitz county line just below Merwin Dam and steering clear of the Vancouver urban area.

BPA leaders first floated the project in 2009 as a way to ease a strained Northwest power grid and support growing energy demands across the region. Partially driving that growth is the recent boom of wind farms in Washington and Oregon, pumping new energy into the system and at times causing overgeneration problems. Officials say the new infrastructure is needed to ensure enough capacity long-term.

Planners have now zeroed in on one route for the new transmission line. But three others already studied remain on the table, according to BPA.

Worries on the ground

The BPA has already applied for a crucial permit to build the transmission line on its preferred route, triggering another review process through the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. But BPA officials insist the line still has some wiggle room as planning moves ahead. The agency can still tweak the route here, move a utility tower there, avoiding impacts whenever possible, said BPA project manager Mark Korsness.

That doesn’t mean the line is likely to shift from one person’s property to another at this point, Korsness said. But smaller fixes are possible. That might mean side-stepping a well, for example. Avoiding a driveway. But for others, it’s not just an inconvenience at stake.

At the Merriman home, the family’s south-facing living room window offers a sweeping vista of the Yacolt Burn State Forest, sloping down to the East Fork Lewis River below. To the west, Bells Mountain looms over the serene landscape.

“There’s a reason we live out here,” Kelli said.

Both Kelli and Dave acknowledge that much of their concern with the transmission line is aesthetic. If the line is built on their property, they say, it will scar the landscape they’ve enjoyed and called home for a decade. The transmission line, carried by 150-foot-tall towers, would require a right of way as much as 150 feet wide, according to BPA. That means acres of trees cleared, waterways crossed and wetlands filled under the new line.

Ray Richards lives in Vancouver, but his family owns a home and property east of Moulton Falls. Richards has helped coordinate the response of some rural citizens who oppose the project. The preferred route now on the table would simply create too much damage to the environment and private land, he said.

“It’s an invasion of property for us,” Richards said.

Richards and the Merrimans are among those who wanted to see BPA go with its West Alternative, which would put the project almost entirely on existing federal right of way, not new land. But it would also send the high-powered transmission line straight into the Vancouver urban area, passing within 500 feet of thousands of homes.

When the BPA announced its preferred route in November, agency leaders characterized the decision as a “balance.” Richards called it a “politically expedient” choice, avoiding the largest number of people — but not the largest cost or impact.

City, timber interests

From the north, the proposed line crosses into Clark County at the North Fork Lewis River, just below Merwin Dam. It continues east next to Lake Merwin, then turns south near Tumtum Mountain. From there, the route heads southward through public lands, timberland and other private lands.

The Central route joins the path of an existing — though smaller — BPA power line before entering Camas from the north. The new line would continue along that right of way through Camas, replacing the existing towers, before crossing the Columbia River and landing in Troutdale, Ore.

Camas leaders have made it clear they’re not happy with the idea of a new transmission line passing through their city. In a letter to the BPA last month, Camas Mayor Scott Higgins and City Councilor Steve Hogan called on the federal power marketing agency to give more consideration to putting the line underground, at least within Camas city limits, or “find another route.” Hogan has said separately that the city should be ready to “go to full-out war” with BPA over the issue.

The Camas City Council hasn’t taken any formal action. BPA did conduct a lengthy analysis of the underground option, but determined it was too costly, uncertain and environmentally challenging to pursue. Camas leaders want to see an underground option explored for just their section of the line. Others have made a similar request. But the BPA hasn’t made any decision on those requests, spokesman Doug Johnson said.

Another entity watching the process closely is Weyerhaeuser. The proposed transmission line route runs across 17 miles of the timber company’s land, much of it in Cowlitz County. Weyerhaeuser remains in regular communication with BPA, said Weyerhaeuser spokesman Anthony Chavez.

Among the company’s biggest concerns is losing productive timberland, which carries an economic and environmental impact. That’s why Weyerhaeuser favored the BPA’s West alternative over the rest.

“All of the routes proposed, with the exception of the existing right of way, would have had an effect on our land holdings,” Chavez said.

The same is true of small-scale timberland owners, Dave Merriman said.

“A lot of people up here have tree farms,” he said. “That’s their income, that money.”

Property owners will be compensated for land that’s needed directly for the line, Johnson said. Land purchases will be based on fair market value and appraisals, he said.

Property acquisition is included in the estimated $459 million price tag of the preferred route, Johnson said.

‘Let’s work on it’

As one of the agencies responsible for permitting the transmission line, the Army Corps of Engineers last month launched a review process of its own. The Corps will study impacts to waterways and wetlands, among other factors, said spokeswoman Patricia Graesser.

As proposed, the transmission line would fill up to 21 acres of wetlands, according to the Corps, and clear trees and shrubs on 87 acres of wetlands. The preferred route also includes up to 401 permanent stream crossings, plus 46 temporary crossings.

As part of its review, the Corps will accept public comment at least through March 1, Graesser said. The BPA recently extended its own comment period to March 25, after some citizens asked for more time.

There’s no set deadline for reviewing the permit application filed by BPA, Graesser said. How long that takes will depend partly on the feedback the agency receives in the coming weeks, she said.

The BPA just wrapped up a series of open house meetings designed to give people a closer look at the project as it enters its next phase. Participants asked questions, viewed displays and browsed interactive online maps.

Off Sunset Falls Road, Dave Merriman has tried to visualize exactly where the line would pass through his property. At the bottom of one slope, he points to an empty site where he’d like to someday build a house for one of his children. But the area appears to be in the path of the transmission line, making those plans uncertain. The same is true of the trees and vegetation on that spot, which may have to be cleared, he said.

“You start imagining nothing here,” Merriman said. “It will look a lot different, I’ll tell you that.”

The transmission line could be under construction as soon as 2015, according to BPA, and moving power by 2018.

But planning isn’t done yet — far from it. Korsness, the BPA project manager, said the agency wants to continue to engage as many property owners as possible in the coming weeks and months. And small details of the project aren’t set in stone.

“Most people are really willing to work with us, and we’re anxious to find out what their concerns are,” Korsness said. “It’s not ‘This is it. Here it is. We’re done.’ It’s ‘Here’s our proposal.’ Let’s work on it.”


Eric Florip: 360-735-4541; http://twitter.com/col_enviro; eric.florip@columbian.com.