Desert panorama, © Gary Ferguson / istock

BLM: Refuse Rights of Way for SunZia

Matt Clark, Southwest Representative

Over the past several years, I have closely followed and commented on the SunZia Southwest Transmission line proposal – a massive, privately funded project to build two parallel 500 kilovolt electric power transmission lines across 515 miles of the desert Southwest, from Lincoln County in New Mexico to Pinal County in Arizona. I still hold hope that the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) will hear the pleas of the conservation community and other members of the public and recognize that the potential benefits of SunZia simply do not outweigh the extensive resource impacts it would cause.

An example of a 500kV transmission line, courtesy Bureau Reclamation

An example of a 500kV transmission line, courtesy Bureau Reclamation

The focus of Defenders’ attention has been on the following two issues: our concern that it would facilitate additional development of fossil fuel (e.g. natural gas) sources and that all of the various routes that the BLM analyzed as options for siting the transmission line would bisect and harm key wildlife habitats and biologically rich ecosystems.

Our attempts to better understand what energy resources this line would facilitate, and who would buy this power, have been thwarted by a lack of transparency throughout the environmental review process. Proponents of SunZia have promised to create an electrical superhighway that will enable wind and solar resources in rural parts of New Mexico and Arizona to be developed and shipped westward to power-hungry population centers in Arizona and California. However, what the project proponents and BLM do not say is that the line also appears to provide a way to deliver its investors’ power from their permitted (but yet to be constructed) 1,000 Megawatt natural gas power plant near Bowie, Arizona. If the project wasn’t also being forced to serve this natural gas plant, the proposed routes would not need to cut through the sensitive San Pedro River Valley and other treasured wild lands as they now do. Furthermore, it is unclear if either California or Arizona will be in a position to buy the power SunZia plans to deliver. Currently there is very limited transmission capacity between Arizona and California, so how SunZia intends to deliver its power from central Arizona to markets in California remains an unsolved mystery.

SunZia would cut through the ecologically sensitive San Pedro River Valley.

SunZia would cut through the ecologically sensitive San Pedro River Valley.

For Defenders and me, the San Pedro route is perhaps the worst of the project’s flaws. The San Pedro River Valley is well known as one of the most biologically rich and fragile watersheds in North America. It is a major north-south bird migration corridor that supports crucial habitat for millions of birds and stopover habitat for 250 migrating bird species every year, and has among the highest bird, mammal and snake diversity on the entire continent. If the project were to run through this area, vegetation would need to be cleared and land disturbed to make way for access roads and 135-foot-tall transmission towers, and the power lines themselves would pose a collision hazard for a variety of bird species.

In addition to that irreparable damage, SunZia would also bisect conservation properties acquired in the lower San Pedro – including land that Pima County already invested $20 million in as part of their landmark conservation plan. Needless to say, Pima County is on record opposing SunZia. Disturbing the lower Valley would also mean interrupting the site of a proposed National Wildlife Refuge.

Last year, I made it a point to conduct field visits to many special places that would be negatively impacted by SunZia to assess how the project’s infrastructure might affect these landscapes. What I learned and saw left me deeply concerned, especially for the following ecosystems:

  • The San Pedro River Valley (see above) and the adjacent uplands, which provide habitat for the declining Sonoran desert tortoise;
  • The Rio Grande River just south of the Sevilleta National Wildlife Refuge, a major bird migration corridor and habitat for imperiled birds such as the Southwestern willow flycatcher;
  • Desert grasslands in Luna County that provide habitat for the endangered Aplomado falcon, pronghorn, and wintering cranes and geese;
  • Wilcox Playa, a designated Important Bird Area that seasonally supports large numbers of sandhill cranes, shorebirds and waterfowl;
  • Chupadera Mesa, a designated Important Bird Area containing high-quality grassland-piñon juniper habitat, ideal for golden eagle, prairie falcons, and great horned owl.
Site where SunZia would cross the Rio Grande River

Site where SunZia would cross the Rio Grande River

We recognize the need for new transmission lines to improve reliability, increase capacity and enable responsible development of renewable energy sources in the Southwest. But to meet these objectives, instead of building new lines that cut through sensitive lands, developers and utilities should upgrade existing transmission infrastructure where possible, and where new transmission lines are crucial, build them in areas and along corridors that have already been disturbed to minimize (and when possible, avoid) impacts to sensitive environmental and cultural resources. For example, upgrading existing lines to increase capacity, or running a power line along the same course as a highway, a structure already impacting the surrounding area, keeps the added impacts in one place instead of creating an entirely new path of disturbance. On this important point of responsible siting, SunZia completely misses the mark.  It is worth pointing out that there are other competing transmission line proposals in the Southwest that appear to be making a greater effort to upgrade existing lines and follow existing linear disturbance corridors.

Representative Raul Grijalva (D-AZ) summed up the issue well in his recent statement: “I’m not alone in wondering why we can’t focus more on following existing transmission routes. The BLM’s proposal is inconsistent with its conservation goals in the San Pedro Watershed. The benefits of building this project specifically along this route do not outweigh the risks to wildlife and sensitive ecosystems that it presents.”

Based on the issues raised above, and others, Defenders cannot support the SunZia line and asks that you join us in opposition. The BLM released the final Environmental Impact Statement for the line—the final step in the public engagement and environmental review process—on June 14, 2013 and comments on this document will be accepted until mid-August. The BLM can still deny the application for this line, therefore avoiding unacceptable impacts on our treasured resources. We are submitting comments to the BLM and have asked our members in the Southwest to do the same. To sign up for action alerts in your area and get news about this and other actions you can take to protect our wildlife and habitats, go to http://www.defenders.org/take-action.

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