Rice farmer Mike Cole has learned to live with the utility transmission towers and crackling lines on the 313-acre farm he co-owns in Sutter County.
But he’s opposed to any new towers and the possibility that his land can be taken by eminent domain, as may happen under a plan proposed by the Sacramento Municipal Utility District and the Department of Energy’s Western Area Power Administration.
That plan, called the CoSu Line, seeks to build a new transmission line through Colusa and Sutter counties so that SMUD can tap into 700 megawatts of cleaner energy from the Pacific Northwest in an effort to reduce the 41 percent of power it generates from local gas-fired power plants.
The most contentious of the route proposals is a 44-mile line that would start from a substation in Maxwell and travel east through part of the 4,507-acre Colusa National Wildlife Refuge before heading along the eastern edge of the Sutter National Wildlife Refuge and ending at a new substation.
New power lines and towers would be built next to existing ones – which means Cole would have to deal with more transmission towers and lines on his land. “I do not want the wires,” Cole said. “I don’t like them from a farming standpoint and I don’t like them from a wildlife standpoint.”
He said power lines present a burden because they increase crop dusting and land management costs. Wherever a tower exists on his land, he estimates it costs him $200 an acre extra to farm yearly. More importantly, he said, it makes crop dusting his fields more dangerous.
“There is an expense with these wires,” Cole said. “We try to grow our crop underneath, but where the tower standards are, you lose that land.”
The existing towers range from 120 to 144 feet high and force crop dusting planes to fly high to avoid them. Dusters must make special passes to adequately seed the land near the wires, Cole said.
In some cases, planes cannot properly apply seed or pesticides without the potential of drift to nearby farms or the Sutter National Wildlife Refuge adjacent to his property, said Cole.
“There are wildlife issues that come with this because we have a duck club business that overlays rice farming,” he said. “The more ground you take out for the wires, the less you have for the flyway and the hunting business.”
It is unclear how the 44-mile proposal would affect a section of the Colusa National Wildlife Refuge that would house new power lines next to existing ones or the Sutter National Wildlife Refuge.
The U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife did not comment on the plan or possible impacts on either refuge.
To date, SMUD and Western Area Power Administration have held four public meetings in Colusa and Sutter counties to reach out to residents as well as the Forest Service and other groups that may be affected. So far, 150 residents have participated, said Lowell Rogers, SMUD project manager.
Rogers said the utility wants to build the power line to help the Sacramento region meet required reductions of greenhouse gas emissions and improve power grid reliability. Those reductions stem from a state-mandated Renewable Portfolio Standard that stipulates half of SMUD’s energy portfolio eventually come from renewable sources. That requirement must be met by 2030, Rogers said.
Past proposals for power lines through Central Valley farmland communities have not been popular. In 2010, the California Public Utilities Commission approved one of six proposed routes for a new 220-kilovolt transmission line called the San Joaquin Cross Valley Loop Transmission Project, proposed by Southern California Edison in 2008.
In that project, the utility said it needed to expand infrastructure to meet growing electricity demands in Tulare County while replacing aging power lines. In some cases, land for the 20-mile line was taken by eminent domain. “There were winners and there were losers in that project,” said Tricia Stever Blattler, executive director of the Tulare County Farm Bureau.
Some Tulare County landowners were not significantly impacted by the project and others were properly compensated, Blattler said.
Some saw negative impacts when new power lines forced the rerouting of wells or closure of others – which turned into a very costly proposition, said Blattler.
In the Tulare project, farmers organized a local community group called PACE to serve as an intermediary between landowners and the utility. “This is not something that can be taken lightly. Farmers need to educate themselves about what rights they have under the law and to make sure they’re being fairly compensated.”
No such group has yet to be organized in Sutter or Colusa counties despite the fact that some land is expected to be taken by eminent domain.
“Western Area Power Administration, as a federal agency, does have eminent domain authority, but we exercise this right rarely and it is viewed as a last resort,” said Andrew Montaño, resource specialist with WAPA
“If the project proceeds and Western conducts the easement negotiations, we will negotiate collaboratively with landowners to reach mutually acceptable settlements,” Montaño said.
Some farmers bristle at the prospect of any land being taking by eminent domain, at any price.
“I don’t want money for the use of my land, and I don’t want to lease it,” said Yuba County rice farmer Mike Shannon.
Hammond owns the 735-acre Shannon Farms and has a power line that crosses his farmland diagonally – which he sees as a large burden, and limiting to his land investment.
“No one knows what a farmer is going to do with the land 30 years from now,” said Shannon. “How is this going to affect what my son wants to do with the property 30 years from now?”
He contends a new set of power lines will render a nearby crop duster air strip useless. Like Cole, Shannon sells duck blinds on his property and expects that new wires will affect how many he can sell to duck hunting clubs.
Some in Sutter County see a clear benefit of the power line project to SMUD customers but feel the county will reap no such benefit.
“Farmers appreciate the need for improving our supply for energy but we also worry that some of these transmission projects, both future and past, treat farmland as a thruway,” said Claudia Street, executive director of the Yuba-Sutter Farm Bureau.
“In this case it really feels like a thruway since none of that power will be available for Colusa or Sutter counties,” she said.
Editor's note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified the agency represented by the acronym WAPA. The correct name is Western Area Power Administration.
Edward Ortiz: 916-321-1071, @edwardortiz