Copyright © 2013 Albuquerque Journal
SANTA FE — The vast, stunning swath of northern New Mexico split by the Rio Grande Gorge had barely been named a national monument when a Colorado utility began reaching out to local leaders about building a power line through the area.
Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association is eyeing the possibility of running a line from a substation north of Alamosa, Colo., to a site somewhere west of Taos.
“We are in the very initial stages of studying this project,” and no route has been identified, said Tri-State spokeswoman Sarah Carlisle.
But the company’s study area for the Valley Corridor Transmission Project overlies the newly designated Rio Grande del Norte National Monument, alarming those still celebrating its hard-won status.
“Didn’t we just protect this area?” asked Stuart Wilde, a Taos County wilderness guide whose company offers llama treks and who attended a meeting with utility representatives in late April. “Now we’ve got to fight another battle to protect it?”
President Barack Obama created the Rio Grande del Norte National Monument by proclamation on March 25, citing the “extraordinary landscape of extreme beauty and daunting harshness.” The document, however, does not preclude new transmission lines.
The monument takes in 242,500 acres of public land — managed by the Bureau of Land Management — from Taos north to the Colorado state line. It includes the 800-foot-deep gorge, the sweeping, sagebrush-studded plains of the Taos Plateau, volcanic cones topping 10,000 feet and remnants of human activity since prehistoric times.
Protection of the area was sought for years by a coalition of conservationists, business owners, sportsmen, land grant heirs and ranchers, and the proclamation was hailed as a boon to the tourism-dependent local economy. One study pegged the annual economic impact at $15 million and said 279 jobs could be created.
Tri-State is a wholesale power supplier to 44 electric cooperatives — including the Taos-based Kit Carson Electric Cooperative — in Colorado, New Mexico, Nebraska and Wyoming.
Carlisle said the utility has long wanted to increase the reliability of service in Colorado’s San Luis Valley, which has a single source of power from the north and experienced major outages in 1998, 2002 and 2003. The company says the demand for power in the valley, especially from agricultural users, is growing; studies have shown a strain on the electric load during irrigation months.
Running a new 230-kilovolt transmission line from a substation north of Alamosa to connect with an existing 345-kilovolt line near Taos would bolster service in the San Luis Valley, increase “the general robustness of the electrical grid” in Colorado and New Mexico, and provide a pathway for potential renewable energy development, the spokeswoman said.
A new substation would be built where the lines would link up near Taos, according to Carlisle, accounting for about one-fourth of the estimated $120 million project cost.
While the proclamation signed by Obama does not specifically preclude new transmission lines in the monument, they would have to be “consistent with the care and management” of the monument’s resources, a decision that would rest with the Bureau of Land Management.
“The national monument is an additional screen that we would use” in weighing whether to authorize the line, said Sam DesGeorges, field manager for the BLM’s Taos field office.
“It is still a discretionary action, and by policy, our preference would be to avoid monument land,” DesGeorges also said.
Controversy and alternatives
There would be years of hurdles for Tri-State after it identified a proposed route, including local, state and federal permitting in the two states and environmental reviews. A projected timeline has construction beginning in 2019 and the line in service a couple of years after that.
“This is a very extensive process for us to go through,” Carlisle said. She said the company has begun discussions with local leaders, will hold public meetings and that “a transparent process is very important to us.” Tri-State also says the transmission line infrastructure, when planned responsibly, is “entirely compatible” with conservation and resource protection.
Tri-State looked south after its plans for an east-west transmission line into the San Luis Valley over La Veta Pass fell apart in late 2011 once its partner in the $180 million project, Xcel Energy, pulled the plug. That project had been fought ferociously by Louis Bacon, the hedge fund founder, conservationist and owner of the 170,000-acre Trinchera Ranch in Colorado.
Wilde and other critics of Tri-State’s north-south corridor proposal say a transmission line with as many as eight supporting structures per mile — likely along a 150-foot right of way — would detract from the natural beauty of the area and possibly harm wildlife, such as the herds of elk and antelope that traverse the area.
Taos Council member Andrew Gonzales said that even if the proposed line were sited along U.S. 285 on the monument’s western side, it would be an eyesore. Tri-State says it’s too early to talk about any specific route.
Gonzales said he anticipates “huge resistance” to the proposal from governing bodies and the general public.
“I told them as far as I’m concerned, it’s not going to happen,” said Esther Garcia, a land grant heir and the mayor of Questa who has been active since 2006 in efforts to conserve the area.
“They need to look for alternate routes,” said Garcia, whose family has grazed sheep and cattle in the river corridor for more than 100 years and who went to the White House for the proclamation signing. “We didn’t work for this monument so they could come and put power lines through it.”