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SunZia river crossing riles environmentalists

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The SunZia Southwest Transmission Project has become a lightning rod for wildlife groups who fear the line’s proposed river crossing could be a death trap for migratory birds.

Under current plans, a small stretch of the 520-mile project would cross the Rio Grande near Escondido, just north of Socorro, something the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service already signed off on. But some environmentalists say the proposed siting would place high-voltage power lines and towers smack in between three wildlife refuges that together provide a seasonal roosting-and-foraging bridge for continental avian migration.

“All these migratory birds winter here because it’s some of the last wetlands left in New Mexico,” said Cecilia Rosacker, executive director of the Rio Grande Agricultural Land Trust. “It’s a critical passage for migrating birds to get to Mexico.”

As now proposed, the power lines would run through one of the narrowest passages between the Ladd S. Gordon Waterfowl Management and Sevilleta National Wildlife Refuge areas to the north, and the Bosque del Apache to the south. The lines would cross between two sandbars that provide historic roosts for migrating cranes.

“If you want to maximize bird kill, that’s the place to put them,” Rosacker said.

The SunZia project aims to carry wind-generated electricity from central New Mexico to western markets. It’s currently under review at the state Public Regulation Commission, where wildlife groups presented their concerns during a week of hearings in June.

But SunZia is already approved by the BLM and Arizona regulators. New Mexico State Land Office permits are also expected later this year.

SunZia Project Manager Tom Wray said detailed avian protection and migratory bird conservation plans are contained in the environmental impact statement on the project that the BLM approved in 2015. That includes limiting the highest-level wires in sensitive areas and using sun-reflecting diverters to keep birds away.

SunZia has also offered to finance Fish and Wildlife monitoring during the first year of operation to enact more mitigation measures based on findings. That could include growing corn for avian foraging in strategic places to lure birds away from power lines, plus modifying sandbar roosts to move birds closer to alternative feeding zones.

“The BLM looked at a half-dozen alternative Rio Grande crossings near Socorro and this is the crossing they arrived at,” Wray said. “The best thing to do is monitor bird injuries or collisions during the first year of operation and then see what other mitigations we can apply.”

The latest concerns are being raised late in the SunZia debate. The project has been under regulatory review since 2008.

“The BLM-approved plan is readily available to these groups, and we’d be happy to meet with them if they have other ideas on mitigation,” Wray said. “They’ve never contacted us that I’m aware of.”

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