NTF Issue Paper: legwatch158.doc. 11-17.

In February, 2012, a federally-approved transmission organization called the Southwest Power Pool (SPP) conducted a study to ensure the power system reliably could handle customer demand in its 9-state region over the next decade. The SPP actually formulates transmission planning for a 14-state region, which includes Nebraska, and shares markets and transmission. The SPP found 2 areas of concern in Nebraska, 1 further east, and one in the thinly-populated Sandhills in north-central Nebraska. NE Public Power District (NPPD) joined the SPP in 2009. In response to the study, NPPD proposed to build a transmission line from its power station near Sutherland to a new substation next to its existing one east of Thedford. This new line, first proposed in 2013, then would proceed east through Blaine, Loup, Garfield, Lincoln, and Wheeler Counties and connect to a second substation built in Holt County. Finally, the line would connect to an existing Western Area Power Administration line. Expected to last 50 years, this project would cross mostly private ranchland and would require support towers every quarter-mile along the route. To install and maintain the facilities, NPPD would offer easement contracts worth 80% of the appraised land value for a 200-foot swath beneath the line. Besides a few restrictions, landowners could still farm or graze livestock underneath. This 225-mile long line supposedly would relieve congestion from current lines within the SPP 9-state region transmission system and offer additional opportunities to develop renewable energy projects, like wind power that works sporadically. This new line allegedly would create opportunities for economic development in rural areas. However, NPPD plans to sell some of this new power to utilities in other states! The cost: $380 million, NPPD paying only 7%, the SPP paying the remainder. NPPD officials met with area landowners, government officials, and regulatory agency reps within the project area and communities. NPPD chose accessing the Sandhills, because Thedford already has a transformer to which the project must connect and therefore refused to alter the route. The Nebraska Power Review Board unanimously approved the NPPD application in October, 2014, thus declaring the project a public necessity, despite alternative routes submitted, including one by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. In January, 2015, NPPD finalized the route. As a political subdivision, it has the right to declare eminent domain should landowners refuse to sign on its terms, and the utility threatens to make liberal use of the process against stubborn landowners. 

Stabilized by a variety of prairie grasses, the Sandhills is the largest stabilized sand dune formation in the Western Hemisphere, 19,000+ square miles of mostly continuous ranchland atop the Ogallala Aquifer.  It is one of the most fragile ecosystems in this hemisphere. Too sandy for farming, the Sandhills primarily hosts grazing and hay production. NE ranchers painstakingly covered the hills in grass and made it some of the best cattle country in the world. Ranchers use horses to avoid the damage that 4-wheelers would cause. The Sandhills sits atop the largest fresh-water aquifer in the U.S. It contains 1.3 million acres (10%) of wetlands and is one of the largest contiguous grasslands in the world. There is no comparable area in the U.S., and it is the most intricate wetland ecosystem in the U.S. Sandhills wetlands are crucial habitat to migratory birds, ducks, geese, swans, Sandhill cranes, and the whooping crane. Majestic trumpeter swans spend the winter along the Dismal River, and bald eagles find a seasonal haven.

Two years of public hearings in the affected areas saw a preponderance of opponents line up to testify against this project. Vociferous opponents came from Sandhills communities, together with a Save the Sandhills organization. Affected areas are among the largest ranches in NE. The renewable energy argument seems unconvincing, because the residents do not believe in climate change. About 25% of the landowners, who own about 35% of land along the route, have not signed off on right of entry. Many worry that allowing this line through the heart of the Sandhills will open the area up to further unwanted development. NPPD has not satisfied their suspicions or concerns.

Hundreds of landowners are speaking at public hearings and in other venues about the negative consequences that would ensue, if these lines cross their ranch land and make some acreages unusable for grazing. Ranchers would run fewer head of cattle in disturbed pastures. Ground critters like prairie chickens would become more susceptible to preying by aggressive fowl like hawks sitting on lines. Heavy trucks and machinery would tear up the fragile land and lead to erosion and sand blowouts. NPPD would place towers on hills to keep the line straight and save money, but the tops of hills lie most prone to wind damage and erosion. Uprooted shelter belts. Interference with migratory waterfowl and eagle nests. A possibility of injured and killed Sandhill cranes. The area is home to the American burying beetle, an endangered species, and grassland birds. The American Bird Conservancy opposes the power line. Property would lose valuation from unsightly landscapes. If landowners do not comply with NPPD demands, the utility can use the threat of eminent domain to access properties. NPPD is using eminent domain like a bully and ignoring private property rights. Outfitter businesses will slump, together with turkey and deer hunting. Whenever you build in the Sandhills and disrupt the grassland, getting grass to grow back is difficult or impossible. You can still see trails created by the buffalo 100 years ago that look as fresh today. Construction could destroy centuries-old wagon ruts of the Mormon and Oregon Trails. The Fish and Wildlife Service must abide by specific requirements of law and the National Historic Preservation Act, section 106, to try to find ways to avoid, minimize, and mitigate impact to these kinds of historical resources. This agency encouraged NPPD to consider alternative routes, to no avail. Picture the picturesque Sandhills ruined by thousands of giant wind turbines and hundreds of miles of high voltage transmission lines with giant towers that look like mechanical robots, with miles of service roads between these structures. 890 high voltage transmission line towers built through the Sandhills. Each of these towers has 4 legs, and each leg requires 4 40-foot-long bolts or screws to attach them to the ground. In most of the Sandhills, the water table is only 30 feet or higher below the surface. Construction could not contend with the high water table in several areas. Many of these screws will penetrate into and damage the aquifer. The construction and placement of power line towers might affect the local groundwater aquifer especially in southern Holt County, where wet meadows and wetlands span the landscape. Several ranchers say a big power line crossing their land could put conservation programs and their livelihoods in jeopardy. The properties contain fragile soils, a sensitive habitat, and a fragile ecosystem. Expect a new trail for trespassers, fire potential from broken lines, vehicles driving through grass in dry years, tearing it off the sand underneath, truck tire ruts in wet meadows, and failure of NPPD crews to stay within easements. Expect building of over 100 miles of roads for new line maintenance. Also, landing pads and holding areas constructed every 20 miles to accommodate the helicopters that will erect the towers.

Barely mentioned by NPPD is that unreliable wind farms with their turbines would follow the transmission lines. Building them would lead to a proliferation of windmills, this sporadic energy source also opposed by a majority of landowners. Line project backers say the new line would boost wind power development in Nebraska and provide more capacity to deliver electricity from wind turbines in remote parts of Nebraska to customers. NPPD and the SPP both claim the line will encourage wind power development. More lines supposedly needed to help transport the energy created by renewable sources, such as wind, as they continue to grow. NPPD actually could locate its transmission lines to the south. Initially, that is where it initially planned it. However, in 2012, NPPD determined that its chief purpose of moving this route to the north was to utilize the possibility of wind energy in the future. Most environmental groups that strongly support wind energy development do so in developed corridors and in areas of previously developed ground but not in pristine and ecologically sensitive areas like the Sandhills. Sandhills residents believe industrial wind energy development entirely unsuitable for their area. Conservative State Sen. Tom Brewer, who represents the 43rd District, earlier this year introduced LB 504, a bill to place a 2-year moratorium on development of industrial wind turbines in the Sandhills and during this period to study wind turbine impacts and influences on the land. His bill, unfortunately, still languishes in the Natural Resources Committee. Landowners in the area already have received letters from companies promoting industrial wind energy and solar power facilities.

NPPD, the largest NE electric utility, started moving forward with easement acquisition and continues to survey on private property without owner consent. NPPD insists on local law enforcement accompaniment for surveyors in Thomas County during continued landowner protests. It seeks legal access to land for surveys and soil borings despite landowner refusal. Before entering property, NPPD should notify landowners. However, a judge ruled that NPPD can enter property without owner permission. It objected to a U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service biologist meeting with irate landowners to discuss its environmental impact study. Under pressure, his superiors requested that the biologist not appear, though he noted that there are less environmentally damaging routes for the line. The Service can approve or deny permits. Also, an NPPD contractor caught taking pictures of vehicle license plates at this private meeting.

The proposed transmission line surprisingly has the public support of Bold Nebraska, a radical leftist group that strongly opposes the Keystone XL Pipeline, because NPPD would help promote renewable energy.

A public utility like NPPD must show public trust. It must honestly solicit and accept public commentary and treat affected area residents fairly and with transparency. NPPD fails on all counts. Urge your state senator to enact legislation to prevent NPPD from constructing this transmission line across the Sandhills and trespassing on private property. Email netaxpayers@gmail.com for state senator contact information.

Research, documentation, and analysis for this issue paper done by Nebraska Taxpayers for Freedom. This material copyrighted by Nebraska Taxpayers for Freedom, with express prior permission granted for its use by other groups in the NE Conservative Coalition Network. 11-17 C.

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