Growers fear power line land grab
Concerns surface on threat lines pose to crop dusters, workers
By JOHN O'CONNELL
AMERICAN FALLS, Idaho -- Larry Bethke parked his pickup truck by the juniper-covered lava flow at the northern boundary of his potato fields and pointed out a sign reading "wilderness study area."
It irks the Power County grower that the sign marks a vast expanse of public land that seldom sees a visitor but has nonetheless been removed from consideration for routing a Montana power company's proposed 500 kilovolt transmission line.
Instead, the only route through Power County being studied by the Bureau of Land Management would diagonally bisect Bethke's 320-acre spud field, along with a other irrigated fields in the vicinity.
NorthWestern Energy's planned Mountain States Transmission Intertie would stretch 260 miles from Colestrip, Mont., to the Midpoint substation near Jerome, crossing between 70 and 95 miles of private land through Idaho, depending on the route. In Power County, 2 miles of irrigated agricultural land would be impacted by the proposed route, a significant reduction from the 25 miles that have been affected before the route was revised to reflect input from property owners.
But Bethke and a group of other Power County irrigators and governmental officials still question why the BLM won't further study a route they've devised that would have no impact on county growers. They call their favored route, which would follow a swath of sage brush between the flows to avoid irrigated fields, "Shoot the Gap." Though the gap would miss the wilderness study area by Bethke's fields, BLM officials noted it's within the borders of Craters of the Moon National Monument, which must be managed to be preserved into the future under federal guidelines.
"There are a number of values for which the monument was designated a national monument, and those values have to be protected," said Tim Bozorth, BLM field manager with the Dillon, Mont., office.
Bethke doesn't like the idea of meeting that preservation goal at the expense of his harvest.
"The more agricultural production we take out every year, the higher food prices are when this transmission line could be put on public ground," Bethke said. "They won't even let you string a line across BLM ground."
Bethke fears such high-voltage lines would disrupt the GPS systems on his equipment, pose a hazard for crop dusters and make moving irrigation lines a headache for his field hands. He also worries about the potential consequences of stray voltage on workers in wet fields.
Wade Povey, whose farm in the Pleasant Valley area between American Falls and Aberdeen encompasses 1,600 acres of beets and 1,000 acres of wheat, believes the power line would spoil a 160-acre field he leases from another grower. If his fears come to fruition that the high-voltage lines will disrupt GPS signals used for guiding equipment, he doubts he would continue that lease agreement.
"Basically, it's going to butcher the field," Povey said, adding he knows of three plane crashes caused by power lines in Pleasant Valley, including two crop dusters, during his decades as a farmer.
Seldom do hikers frequent the rugged terrain surrounding the "Shoot the Gap" route, he said.
"They have their rules. We can't go there because of this reason or that reason. What about our rules?" Povey asked. "They have a policy; so do we. No power lines."
Pocatello attorney Doug Balfour represents several growers and Power County officials on the transmission line issue.
He said his clients are asking no more of the BLM than to study Shoot the Gap and another alternative, called the Northern Route, that has also been removed from consideration. The Northern Route followed U.S. Highway 20 along the western edge of Craters of the Moon and had little impact on irrigated farm land. Bozorth noted the BLM had serious environmental concerns about the Northern Route.
Balfour said Power County had been working on the project as a cooperating agency since 2009. That relationship was terminated in July when the county and the BLM couldn't agree on language when the agency sought to revise the cooperative agreement. Balfour stressed that counties have siting authority for projects on private land under state law, and Power County may consider moving forward in planning without the BLM.
"We'd prepare our own corridor and site that and say, 'This is what's available.' That may very well be the plan," Balfour said. "I think the BLM is in a tough situation because they're ignoring the county's siting authority."
Balfour also represents irrigators in Power and Cassia counties who would be impacted by Idaho Power's proposed Gateway transmission line. Though it still poses plenty of challenges, that project hasn't been hampered by the same sort of tensions with the federal agency, he said.
"The BLM on the Gateway project has been very open to studying any route we've suggested," Balfour said.
Tom Pankratz, project manager with NorthWestern Energy, disagreed with the notion that the alternate routes haven't been studied in sufficient depth.
"The reasons the routes are not being further studied have been presented to Power County. Power County disagrees with the results, but at the end of the day routing a transmission line through a wilderness study area is a no go," Pankratz said.
Pankratz said the project represents a $400 million investment in Idaho's economy. Officials hope to release a draft environmental impact statement of the project next spring. He vowed work will continue to make the project more palatable for affected landowners.
"There has been a significant amount of work to minimize impacts in Power County," Pankratz said. "We now have down to where less than 2 miles of irrigated agricultural land would be impacted. Our goal is to continue to work with the actual private landowners to find general acceptance."
Bethke believes there's also a compelling economic argument for considering Shoot the Gap as an option. At a cost of $1.5 million per mile to install the transmission line, Shoot the Gap is a much shorter route and would result in a considerable savings for utility rate payers.
"We just want the BLM to study the gap," Bethke said.