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SunZia, Western Spirit and the Rio Grande

The Rio Grande River flows near Socorro

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — As New Mexico strives to develop renewable energy, massive transmission lines could soon tower over pristine plains and cut across the central Rio Grande in areas considered critical for migrating birds and other wildlife.

One project, the Western Spirit Transmission Line, is scheduled to break ground this fall, slicing through desert vistas in Socorro and Valencia counties and crossing the river near Bosque, south of Belen. Another, the SunZia Southwest Transmission Project, could soon follow the Western Spirit line if the U.S. Bureau of Land Management approves it.

Together, the two projects could potentially free up more than 5,000 megawatts of renewable energy near Corona in Lincoln County, where Pattern Energy wants to build massive wind farms to transport clean power from the state’s gusty eastern plains to western markets.

Dylan Merritt tosses a dried branch into the Rio Grande for his dog Atlas to retrieve near Socorro on June 3. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Albuquerque Journal)

But the prospect of towering electric pylons dotting the dessert countryside and bridging the Rio Grande smack in the flight path of tens of thousands of migratory birds that nest and roost there has riled local communities into action. Conservation groups, in particular, are pushing developers to bury transmission lines under the river, both to protect wildlife and to mitigate the projects’ impact on tourism, which provides critical income for the local economy.

Protect Our Rio Grande member Gina Dello Russo, a riparian ecologist who worked with the BLM and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for 27 years before retiring in 2012, said state officials and energy developers must work with local communities on a strategic plan for transmission projects that safeguards natural, cultural and economic resources as New Mexico works to build a carbon-free electric grid.

Birds flock at the wetlands of Bosque del Apache.

“We need to look in depth at how these projects impact the state,” Dello Russo said. “We need a comprehensive, statewide plan that looks at river crossings in detail and considers possible alternatives, because the Rio Grande is a critical artery. … No one is against clean, alternative energy, but we need to make sure it’s done right so that we don’t lose the things we treasure about our state in the process.”

Cecilia Rosacker of the Rio Grande Agricultural Land Trust called the river New Mexico’s No. 1 resource, sustaining humans and wildlife for generations. Today, it stands as a critical and endangered continental migratory corridor for some 400 species of birds that travel back and forth annually from a dozen U.S. states to winter, feed and nest along the river’s banks and surrounding areas.

“The Rio Grande is an iconic river in the Southwest and it’s threatened in so many ways,” Rosacker said. “People and wildlife depend on it, and both people and wildlife will be significantly impacted by these huge transmission projects.”

Fraught from the start

The SunZia project has been especially contentious since it was first proposed in 2006 as a 520-mile, high-voltage line that could carry up to 4.5 gigawatts of wind energy from central New Mexico to Arizona for export to western markets. It encompasses about 320 miles in New Mexico, beginning near Corona, running east to the river, and then cutting due south after crossing the Rio Grande.

The line’s east-west segment is at the heart of the controversy. The BLM approved right of way permits to cross federal lands there in 2015, but the process was bogged down for years by U.S. Department of Defense opposition to a 45-mile section that would transverse the northern extension area of White Sands Missile Range – a “call-up zone” where ranchers and others are often evacuated for testing exercises.

That conflict was resolved when SunZia developers agreed to bury five miles of line in the extension area.

But the project still needs state right-of-way approvals. It hit a major snag in September 2018, when the Public Regulation Commission rejected SunZia’s application for line-location permits, reflecting intense opposition from conservation groups, private landowners and Socorro County officials.

Conservationists were especially concerned by BLM approval to cross the Rio Grande at Escondida, just north of Socorro, which the BLM chose as the shortest crossing point.

The line would run through a narrow passage between two refuges – Sevilleta National Wildlife Refuge to the north and Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge to the south. In addition, the Ladd S. Gordon Waterfowl Complex lies further north of Sevilleta near Bernardo.

This model of a SunZia tower, built by Rio Grande conservation groups, shows the scale of the structure’s height compared with a truck at its base. The tower will be about as tall as an 18-story building. (Kevin Robinson-Avila/Albuquerque Journal)

SunZia developers regrouped after the PRC rejection to consider alternatives that could reduce opposition. As a result, in March, project leaders asked the BLM to amend the federal right of way for the east-west segment, reopening the BLM’s National Environmental Protection Act, or NEPA, process to consider moving that whole section of line further north outside White Sands’ northern extension zone and beyond both Sevilleta and Ladd S. Gordon to cross the river near Bosque, south of Belen.

The exact route won’t become clear until the new NEPA process begins in a few months. But SunZia says it would generally parallel the east-west route being pursued by the Western Spirit Transmission Line, a separate project that would carry about 800 MW of wind energy from the Corona area westward to California.

Parallel project

Private company Pattern Development is building the Western Spirit project in partnership with the state’s Renewable Energy Transmission Authority, a quasi-governmental entity the Legislature created in 2007 to help finance and build transmission systems to tap into central and eastern New Mexico’s vast wind generation potential. RETA owns the rights to Western Spirit, although Public Service Company of New Mexico will acquire the line once it’s built.

Pattern is developing a huge complex of wind farms near Corona that could generate 3 GW or more of wind energy for transport over both Western Spirit and SunZia.

An overlook of the Rio Grande Valley near Lemitar, N.M., not far from where the SunZia transmission line is planned to be built.

Unlike SunZia, however, Western Spirit is basically a done deal, with all federal and state permits in hand and plans to begin construction this fall, said Johnny Casana, Pattern’s senior manager for U.S. political and regulatory affairs.

“The project is on track,” Casana told the Journal. “We’re months away from breaking ground, and we’re not anticipating anything that would derail our timeline to begin commercial operations in 2021.”

Johnny Casana

Only a handful of agreements with private landowners must still be negotiated, said RETA Executive Director Fernando Martinez.

“We have agreements in place for right of ways on more than 400 of the 433 land parcels along the Western Spirit route,” Martinez said.

Coming to the table

SunZia’s potential re-alignment closer to Western Spirit could dissipate some opposition. The Socorro County Commission, for example, voted 3-2 on May 12 to retract a previous, unanimous vote last year to oppose SunZia.

The developers have also reached out to conservation groups and others to discuss issues, including a meeting in February in Santa Fe hosted by the Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department, and an online conversation in May.

John Ryan

“We’re engaging with environmental groups,” said SunZia New Mexico Executive Director John Ryan. “We have much better outreach with them now, and the dialogue has been good.”

Conservation groups say SunZia’s outreach is an improvement from years past, when few, if any, direct conversations took place. But SunZia’s proposal to move the transmission line further north won’t resolve their concerns about impacts along the Rio Grande, nor opposition by many landowners to massive towers that could reach 175 feet, said Friends of the Bosque Treasurer Mary Ruff.

“That’s equivalent to an 18-story building,” Ruff said. “And SunZia is planning to build two transmission lines that will run parallel to each other, with about 1,000 feet between towers on each line.”

Each high-voltage line could carry 1,500 MW of AC, or alternating current, with an option for one of them to carry 3,000 MW of DC, or direct current. That would potentially offer 4.5 GW of transmission capacity, although SunZia has not yet decided if it will exercise the 3,000 MW DC option, Ryan said.

Flight path key

The big issue is SunZia’s river crossing, which will directly impact migrating birds no matter where it’s located in the mid-Rio Grande region, said Cecilia Rosacker of the Agricultural Land Trust.

“We’ve partnered with numerous land conservation groups, local agencies and landowners to protect the entire central Rio Grande,” Rosacker said. “We’ve invested $10 million in grants and matching funds in recent years to develop conservation easements in four different counties, including Sandoval, Bernalillo, Valencia and Socorro.”

Wintering migratory birds travel up and down the entire area, including sandhill cranes, geese, ducks and raptors. Many will inevitably fly into SunZia lines, potentially converting the river crossings into a snare that could regularly kill and maim birds, said Friends of the Bosque Executive Director Deb Caldwell.

“These are historic roosts for the birds,” Caldwell said. “The cranes fly 30 miles or more a day throughout the area. They feed at Ladd S. Gordon at Bernardo or at Bosque del Apache, and they fly back and forth.”

SunZia has considered various mitigation measures for the overhead lines, such as placing night and day reflective diverters on lines to scare birds away and creating new foraging zones away from transmission infrastructure.

Diverters may help, but birds will still be killed and they won’t change their feeding, nesting and roosting patterns, Caldwell said.

Deb Caldwell

“You can’t just change ingrained patterns of bird behavior,” Caldwell said. “They’ve been migrating through these areas for hundreds of years. They won’t just move away from the towers by building a new corn field for them.”

Hopes to bury

The conservation groups say burying the transmission lines underground at river crossings is the only effective way to mitigate the danger to migratory birds.

That’s an emerging strategy for large renewable projects in other states, such as Direct Connect Development Company’s newly-proposed SOO Green Transmission Line, a $2.5 billion project to carry 2,100 MW of clean power through 350 miles of buried lines running from Mason City, Iowa, to Chicago.

SunZia resisted the underground option in the past, but it’s now open to analyzing the possibility through the NEPA process.

Fernando Martinez

“That will be up to the BLM, but we’re talking with (environmental groups) about all these issues,” Ryan told the Journal in May.

Beyond burying the transmission lines, conservation groups are calling for development of a statewide strategy to manage transmission projects going forward as New Mexico works to convert the grid to carbon-free generation. That’s critical, because a lot more electric infrastructure will be needed to transport clean power from remote rural zones to urban centers and communities.

“RETA is working with many world class developers interested in implementing new projects in New Mexico,” Martinez said. “There are more projects coming down the pike beyond SunZia and Western Spirit.”

Study forthcoming

RETA received a state appropriation in 2019 to conduct a comprehensive New Mexico transmission study that will be released this month. Conservation groups hope it will propose new development strategies that embrace broad public input on projects, while also considering the full scope of impacts on New Mexico communities.

Birds flock at the wetlands of Bosque del Apache. (Courtesy of Christi Bode/Friends Of The Bosque)

That includes economic losses for local communities that depend on tourism connected to migratory birds, said Sandra Noll of Protect Our Rio Grande.

New Mexico is ranked as the fifth most-visited state for birding, according to the research group Headwaters Economics, with some 200,000 annual visitors just at Bosque del Apache. Nearly 13% of jobs in Socorro County are related to birding tourism.

“We need strategic models that consider the total costs of transmission development and that doesn’t damage our economy,” Noll said. “We can be a leader in renewable energy, but we also need to lead in how to do it right without damaging things that make New Mexico special. It can’t be an either/or proposition.”

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