The route of a 300-mile high-voltage power line has won the federal government’s approval, but some Eastern Oregon farmers hope state regulators can still alter its course.
The U.S. Bureau of Land Management has granted a right-of-way allowing Idaho Power’s transmission line to cross roughly 100 miles of federal land, but Oregon’s Energy Facility Siting Council must still sign off on its overall path.
“They picked a route but the state doesn’t have to go along with that,” said Mark Bennett, a rancher and commissioner for Oregon’s Baker County.
The transmission line between Boardman, Ore., and the Nampa, Idaho, area is expected to cost up to $1.2 billion, with construction projected to start in 2021.
About 70 miles of the transmission line would run through Baker County, with more than 80 percent of those miles located on “exclusive farm use” property, said Bennett.
“It not only affects that farming ground, it’s affecting the visual corridor as well,” Bennett said.
Farmers and ranchers in the area would prefer the transmission line to bypass Baker County by traversing an existing Central Oregon energy corridor, though that would likely add to its length, he said.
Aside from the transmission line itself, its presence is associated with road-building, weeds and other disturbances to agriculture, he said.
Irrigation wheel lines and center pivots would be disrupted by the transmission line, as would aerial pesticide applications, said Bennett.
“It affects people’s property values by putting up a power line in their viewshed,” he added.
Further to the West, in Morrow County, farmers have at least partly resolved concerns about the transmission line’s effects on agriculture.
Growers were hoping for 12 miles of the transmission line to be located on the edge of the U.S. Navy’s bombing range near Boardman, Ore., rather than on farmland.
Due to the presence of tribal cultural resources within the bombing range, however, the southernmost five miles must cross the road onto private property, said Carla McLane, Morrow County’s planning director.
“They have to balance all those impacts to have a viable project,” McLane said.
As the transmission line travels further south of the bombing range, it would first cross land used for irrigated farming and then dryland farming, she said.
Irrigated agriculture often involves growing several crops per year, so the transmission line would be more prone to interfere with those operations than dryland agriculture, McLane said.
“There’s more opportunity for conflicts,” she said.
Another issue associated with the transmission line is the planned construction near Boardman of an electrical substation, with which other power lines will eventually seek to connect, said J.R. Cook, director of the Northeast Oregon Water Association.
“You’ve set a heartbeat at that point,” he said.
The U.S. will continue to demand new energy sources, which need to connect to the electrical grid, but federal processes often push transmission lines onto private farmland, Cook said.
“These issues are going to continue to compound,” he said.
Cook said he’s doesn’t blame Idaho Power for the problem, but he is disappointed with the planning process for siting transmission lines.
The partial victory of relocating seven miles of the transmission line has cost the local community roughly $1 million in legal fees, travel and staff time, he said. “How is that a system that’s working?”
Stephanie McCurdy, communications specialist with Idaho Power, said the existing Central Oregon power corridor suggested by Baker County farms “does not terminate at a location that meets the project’s objectives,” as the transmission line must connect to an electricity trading hub near Boardman.
Alternative routes that were analyzed weren’t feasible due to the presence of “high-quality streams, rugged terrain, and two national forests that do not have any existing utility corridors,” she said in am email.
The company controls invasive weeds and otherwise mitigate adverse effects to farmers, McCurdy said. “Over the long term, most agricultural activities can proceed with the transmission line in place.”