Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Transmission project threatens Idaho farms


    An unknown number of unfortunate Idaho farm and ranch families are about to learn the meaning of the phrase “step back and let the big dogs eat.”
    Rocky Mountain Power and Idaho Power are preparing to create a right of way across southern Idaho to accommodate a massive power transmission corridor called Gateway West.
    We all need power, and infrastructure upgrades are necessary. However, the proposed route of this 250-foot-wide, 990-mile-long project will come at a significant cost to many landowners. More than 700 miles of the project is slated to cross private land.
    In spite of the fact that 63 percent of Idaho is controlled by the federal government and ample amounts of that public land are available for this and projects like it, the utilities are planning on taking the path of least resistance—in other words, private land. The cheapest, easiest, most efficient route provides the utility companies and their shareholders with the optimum return on their investment.
    It’s much easier for the utility companies in the process of purchasing a right of way to insist on confidential negotiations with single landowners and bully them with the threat of eminent domain than it is to deal with the federal government and all its encumbrances, not the least of which is the Endangered Species Act.
    It’s much easier to cross flat farmland that somebody else already went to the trouble of clearing and leveling than it is to find a way through the foothills and sagebrush.
    It’s much easier to engineer and build roads to haul towers and construction materials and set up large areas for stretching cable on a farm.   
    All of these things may make it easier, but none makes it right.
    According to the American Farmland Trust, Idaho lost 32 million acres of crop and pasture land between 1997 and 2007. How will this project contribute to this disturbing trend? Agriculture is a significant contributor to our state’s economy. Gateway West will be a severe detriment to private land in Twin Falls, Bannock, Power, Cassia and Owyhee counties. Agriculture is an important sector of the economy in all those counties in terms of both job creation and revenue generated. A power line should not be made a higher priority than agriculture.
    In a recent interview, a Rocky Mountain Power spokesman said the company will negotiate only with landowners on an individual basis. The same spokesman said the company doesn’t know how many landowners are affected. Idaho Power deferred questions to Rocky Mountain Power. These responses provide some evidence of things likely to come. First, not knowing how many landowners are involved, or at least not being willing to disclose the information, is a red flag.
    The process of negotiating the purchase of a right of way across 700 miles of private land with possibly hundreds of different landowners is a daunting task. There are dozens of things to consider, and each property will be different. Those things include how much cropland will be disturbed and for how long, values of various crops, yield loss, irrigation refits and cost of access for future maintenance of the power line. From the power companies’ perspective, it will be much easier if the landowners up and down the line can’t share information. Landowners in the path of this project have a lot at stake and should be compensated fairly.
    Second, we’re puzzled why Rocky Mountain Power is speaking for Idaho Power when the majority of the project is in Idaho Power’s service area. When we asked that question, we didn’t get a straight answer—another red flag.
    A BLM official has acknowledged that high-voltage transmission lines are likely to create mechanical and electronic interference with irrigation equipment and GPS units used to guide tractors and other farm equipment. This is a serious problem with unknown implications and yet another very good reason to move this project away from farms. It’s close to impossible to calculate the loss to a farm operation that no longer has reliable irrigation or GPS. Will stray voltage make farm equipment inaccurate? Our fear is that once the line is in place, no one is going to care about the effects of stray voltage on farms except the farmers who are forced to deal with it.
    Sage grouse and the Endangered Species Act are a big part of the reason that private landowners are being forced to bear the cost of this project. This nonsensical scenario reminds us of another bird. The actions taken by the federal government to protect the spotted owl resulted in the loss of thousands of jobs in Idaho, Oregon and Washington.
    Sage grouse are a major hurdle in the path of the project. But we don’t believe it’s the sole responsibility of private landowners to bear that burden. We don’t want this project to usher these desert birds toward their demise, but we believe a greater public good comes from the production of food, the revenue it creates and the families it supports.  
    We can anticipate the power companies’ response to moving their lines away from private land will be that power rates will increase. We also know that with or without this project, power rates are going to increase. A lot remains unknown about this project and the future, but one thing we are certain of is that the power companies are going to continue to be profitable. If rates increase, the cost of food production follows, and those costs will be passed along to consumers.     
    We urge all Idaho farmers, ranchers and landowners to rally toward this cause. If this project is allowed to move forward as planned, it will set a dangerous precedent for private landowners all across our state.

Frank Priestley is president of the Idaho Farm Bureau.

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