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The San Pedro River Valley: An energy battlefield

Overlooking the San Pedro River Valley (All Photos by Emily Huddleston|Tombstone Epitaph)

Overlooking the San Pedro River Valley (All Photos by Emily Huddleston|Arizona Sonora News)

Cottonwoods shade a river where thousands of fish swim and millions of migrating birds stop. This green ribbon ebbs and flows through an otherwise charcoal brown valley.

Dirt roads lead to farms and homes, cows graze and wind blows through desert trees and shrubs. Usually this area is quiet and peaceful, but recently this valley has been a place of unrest regarding a proposed power line that some say threatens the ecological purity of the land while others claim is needed to promote long-term economic development.

On Wednesday the Arizona Corporation Commission approved a major permit for the proposed SunZia power line. This is one of the last permits the project needs before construction begins in Arizona.

The $2 billion, 515-mile SunZia power line will consist of two high voltage lines that will run from central New Mexico down through southern New Mexico and into southern Arizona, with the intention to sell wind and other renewable energy produced in New Mexico to Arizona and California.

About 200 miles of the line will run through Arizona, but the focal point for the debate surrounding SunZia lies within the 35 miles of line that will first cross the San Pedro River and then run along side the river and up the San Pedro River Valley.

Wednesday’s 3-2 vote comes as another defeat for the community that advocates for the San Pedro River Valley.

San Pedro River in Benson

San Pedro River in Benson

Opponents can request a rehearing with Arizona Corporation Commission. If the permit is still approved, the case can be brought to Arizona Superior Court. No decision has been made yet to challenge the commission’s decision.

“Some people say the San Pedro River Valley is out in the middle of nowhere and that there is nothing out here,” said Anna Lands, a resident in the valley. “But this place is the center of my universe.”

The San Pedro River Valley is listed as one of the “Last Great Places in the Northern Hemisphere” by the Nature Conservancy, and was named the United States’ first “Important Bird Area” by the American Bird Conservancy.

Titles and ranks aside, the community that lives within this valley has a great appreciation for the land and has fought hard to protect it. They think these lines will irreparably harm some of Arizona’s most natural and cultural resources, disrupting and damaging a crucial ecosystem.

“It’s the wildlife, the bird life, the quiet and the dark,” said Norman Meader, a homeowner in the San Pedro River Valley and the co-chair of the Cascabel Working Group. “For those of us who live there, the environment is just so wonderful, we would hate to see it all broke up.”

The Cascabel Working Group is a volunteer organization that networks and shares information about the San Pedro River Valley with environmental and other organizations both local and national.

“We are really a group of landowners there in the valley that have been struggling to protect this area against these monstrous infrastructure projects,” Meader said.

The San Pedro River Valley is also one of the least fragmented areas in Arizona. In the last 40 years, more than $40 million has been spent by government agencies and non-profits to protect the area and to mitigate other impacts from projects around Arizona.

This is “the very watershed that is depended upon for mitigating the impacts of growth in the other major desert watersheds of Arizona,” said Peter Else, a homeowner in the San Pedro River Valley.

Opponents are also concerned about additional roads being built throughout the otherwise untouched valley.  If the power lines are built, a road will be constructed to maintain each tower. Critics say these roads could fragment wildlife habitat because species may be reluctant to cross an area of open ground.

Lands is concerned that the roads will attract motorists.

“If this line is built, roads will be constructed,” she said, “and these roads open up a new corridor for four-wheelers.”

While Lands thinks four-wheelers have their place, she said driving through these areas will degrade the soil and continue the fragmentation of the habitat.

Existing power lines running through the San Pedro River Valley

Existing power lines running through the San Pedro River Valley

More than 50 mitigation measures have been approved and outlined in the final SunZia Environmental Impact Statement to curb the environmental impacts in the valley. For example, helicopters will be used to install transmission structures though the most sensitive eight miles of the valley so roads don’t have to be constructed.

The San Pedro River is also considered one of the largest and most important avian migratory corridors in the country.

Many opponents see the potential for bird collisions and electrocutions with the towers and lines. To alleviate this problem, the Bureau of Land Management is requiring bird diverters, which are 6-inch pieces of reflective metal or plastic to catch the birds’ attention.

However, Meader said these mitigation measures are not enough. “Even though they have proposed mitigation measures, going through an area like this it is just so hard to mitigate,” Meader said.

Opponents also foresee this project attracting other infrastructure projects in the valley.

“Our overriding concern is not only that this project proposes to go through Arizona’s richest biological treasure and an area of outstanding natural beauty, but that by awarding a Certificate of Environmental Compatibility, you will be opening the gates for cumulative impacts by a host of other large-scale linear utility projects,” David Omick, a member of the Cascabel Conservation Association, told the Arizona Corporation Commission. “The federal mandate to co-locate utilities wherever possible will encourage this.”

But not everyone in the community is against SunZia. Chris Fletcher is a cattle rancher in the affected area and will be directly impacted by the SunZia transmission lines as they cross his grazing lease.

Throughout this process, Fletcher has developed a relationship with SunZia, and the company has worked with Fletcher to make sure his needs are met and his land is not disturbed

“Sunzia has acted professionally, courteously, respectively and in good faith at every step of the process to create a positive relationship with me, my ranch and my community,” Fletcher said. “I look forward to working with SunZia through the commitments they made to me and my ranch, to do this project well, properly and protect the natural resources they will disturb.”

This project is one of six major transmission line projects being pushed by the Obama Administration to integrate renewables into the electric gird.

However, opponents are skeptical that a majority of the transmission will be used for renewables.

SunZia has a permit for an unbuilt power plant in Bowie along the line, and Meader believes the new line would transmit fossil-fueled natural gas to the plant.

“We have gotten them to swear on a stack of bibles that they wouldn’t do that, but we believe if the power plant was built they would eventually deliver power there,” Meader said.

In the current situation, regardless if the the Bowie power plant is built, SunZia is able to reserve 50 percent of the transmission capacity for customers of its choosing. The other 50 percent of the transmission capacity will go out on the open market without discrimination of generation type, whether renewable or fossil-fueled.

“The project has been misrepresented to the public and decision-makers and it is apparent that the

San Pedro River Valley along Cascabel Road

San Pedro River Valley along Cascabel Road

benefits do not outweigh the costs to the environment,” Else said.

Opponents also see a lack of need for the line.

According to Meader, the utilities do not need this power. “Our renewables here in Arizona are huge with our solar energy — it is like 300 times our total requirements — so California is the potential big market but they show they can meet all of their needs with their own resources if they need to,” Meader said. “New Mexico wants to break into the market and is hoping to boost their economy by being able to sell some of it.”

Many counties along the line support the project because it will bring new jobs and economic development.

“We feel the project will improve the reliability of the electrical gird in Arizona,” said Robert Corbell, a county supervisor in Greenlee County. “It will provide renewable energy that will be good for our community and diversify the sources of energy we have available.”

Supervisor Drew John of Graham County sees the line opening up new opportunities for other renewable projects.

“We have had solar companies come to our area and talk about putting in solar panels in our area, but had no way to get it to a power plant, so we have lost certain deals,” John said. “Economically, this could benefit Graham County and I think the whole state of Arizona.”

For SunZia, its next priority is receiving formal permits in New Mexico and financing the project. The company hopes to have its first line operating by 2021.

Emily Huddleston is a reporter for Arizona Sonora News, a service from the school of Journalism with the University of Arizona. Contact her at emilyhuddleston@email.arizona.edu 

Click here for a Word version of this story and high resolution photos

This story has been edited to correct the quote of David Omick. Words were omitted that changed its meaning.