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Environmental Interference 

Organizers ready to protect San Pedro River Valley against a 515-mile long high-voltage transmission corridor

About two weeks ago during a trip to New Mexico, U.S. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell announced that after six years of debate and study, the SunZia Southwest Transmission Project, a high-voltage, 515-mile long transmission corridor from central New Mexico to Southern Arizona, had received the federal government's green light.

The department authorized a proposed route by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management that would go right through the San Pedro River Valley, based on an environmental impact statement issued by the agency, which ensured this route would bring little-to-no damage to the region. It is a move state environmental groups vow to challenge.

Last Wednesday, members of the Friends of the Aravaipa Region, which fights for the protection of the lower San Pedro watershed alongside the Cascabel Working Group, met with collaborators to address their two options: take the fight to a federal district court (where the group would launch a lawsuit over BLM's environmental impact statement, which the groups argue is flawed) or turn to the Arizona Corporation Commission and cut the project's oxygen from inside the state.

On that evening, the groups discussed their financial situation. They need to raise legal funds if they plan to take on a fight of this caliber. But the money is secondary to their hunger to protect the San Pedro.

"The problem with this project is they so narrowly defined their study area that they made it so that they had to go through the San Pedro," says Peter Else of Friends of the Aravaipa Region. "There were alternative projects that could have avoided the San Pedro altogether, and would still accomplish the same overall goal, but those were not adequately discussed in the BLM's environmental impact statement and that is our major issue."

The group says the SunZia route would interfere with major bird migratory corridors, kill vegetation to avoid fires near the power lines, bring invasive weeds, and the effects pile up, according to Else. (The Pima County Sonoran Desert Conservation Plan would, too, be affected by the project, according to the Cascabel Working Group.) Also, SunZia interferes with past state conservation efforts by the federal government.

"This is a go-to area for mitigating impacts that have taken place elsewhere in Arizona," Else says. "When water levels were raised in the reservoir for the Phoenix area, a lot of the habitat in the Roosevelt Lake was destroyed, and they had to compensate for those impacts. They said, 'Where is the best place to find good habitat? The lower San Pedro watershed.' It was selected because of the high habitat value and these are all federally approved mitigation destinations, and now the feds are turning around and devaluating its investments."

It's not just the power lines. There will be new networks of roads, which means heavier traffic in the area and an open door to additional infrastructure from the new corridor that'd be created there.

The SunZia idea, which is a collaboration of several organizations (including Tucson Electric Power) but is primarily backed up by the Phoenix-based Southwestern Power Group, was a magnet for opposition since its inception. But those involved with the project aren't surprised about the criticism. They say it is inevitable to attract opposition with a transmission project as big as SunZia.

Primarily, the project hopes to access stranded renewable energy in the forms of wind and solar and enable the development of those resources, as well as strengthen the voltage capacity in the Southwest—the lines would transfer about 3,000 and 4,500 megawatts of energy resources at a "projected ratio of four parts renewable energy to every one part of fossil-fueled energy," according to SunZia. A study done by the UA's Eller College of Management's Economic and Business Research Center and the New Mexico State University predicts thousands of jobs and hundreds of millions of dollars in salaries and wages for new jobs and tax revenue for the state.

"It was identified about a decade ago that some time in the future someone needs to build up the transmission capacity in the Southwest, and we are glad that we are going to be meeting that challenge," says Ian Calkins, spokesperson for SunZia. "The number of jobs and economic development that will come as a result of the project is something that we are very proud of. Everyone wants clean reliable and affordable electricity but no one wants to see power plants or transmission lines. The two go hand-in-hand."

Opponents have both contested the likelihood of SunZia actually being about renewable energy and whether there would even be a market for what the project plans to tap into.

"We think it is very likely to carry some fossil fuel," says Sandy Bahr, director of the Sierra Club's Grand Canyon Chapter. "And we also question the need for the line. One of the places they plan to deliver the renewable resources is California, and it doesn't really add up because California is focused on trying to generate its own renewable energy."

But Calkins says SunZia would meet demands in Arizona, Nevada and southern California.

"Our project taps into the highest wind resources in the entire western United States, and all one has to do is look at a map and look at where the project begins, and the project begins in some of the highest wind resource areas in the entire southwestern U.S. It doesn't begin near coal plants," Calkins says.

SunZia can't promise 100 percent renewable energy because federal law says that if a non-renewable company wants a piece of the power lines, SunZia is prohibited from denying them access.

Adding to concerns is the Southwestern Power's preparation to build a natural gas power plant in New Mexico, not far from the proposed SunZia route. But according to BLM's responses to public comments in the environmental impact statement, the company says the two projects aren't related.

The project's approval isn't written in stone. SunZia still needs to obtain a certificate of environmental compatibility from the state's Transmission Line Siting Committee, and then final approval by the Corporation Commission. In New Mexico, a similar process is under way, but the newly-appointed land commissioner there has already put the project's advancement on hold, at least for the next 60 days while a full review takes place.

Challengers will likely decide what to do in the next few weeks, and the tug and pull continues as BLM stands by its route and SunZia by the benefits of its project.

Friends of the Aravaipa Region and supports continue to push for other alternatives.

"The Southline Transmission Project happens to be a little behind in the regulatory process, but it could easily handle all the projected new resource load in southern New Mexico and Southern Arizona," Else says. "And what they have done is they have followed the Interstate 10 corridor and have decided to upgrade existing lines rather than building a whole new corridor as SunZia intends to do."

More by María Inés Taracena

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