22 October 2014

FWS Comments on Birdwood Creek and R-Project

The following is an email sent by Robert M. Harms, a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service ecological services office in Nebraska, in regards to Birdwood Creek and the proposed R-Project. This is the entirety of the email sent to the Nebraska Public Power District, and presented verbatim with his permission.

"Please make reference to a recent site visit held on June 16, 2014, that was hosted by a local landowner (Mr. Mike Kelly) and attended by several organizations and individuals including but not limited to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service), Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, Nebraska Public Power District (NPPD), The Nature Conservancy, Ducks Unlimited (DU), and local landowners. The site visit was informational and focused on potential migratory bird issues in the area of the proposed R-Project—especially the alternative preferred by NPPD. There was important discussion at the site visit about an additional alternative that involves routing the R-Project power line from Gerald Gentlemen Station (GGS) to a northeastern direction, east of North Platte where it would then extend northward along Highway 83 — a.k.a the “East of North Platte Alternative” (see attachment for general location). Discussions at the meeting indicated that this alternative may have less impact on migratory birds because it avoids large concentrations of birds that are prevalent in the area of the preferred alternative. There was also discussions about potential impacts to conservation easements held along the preferred alternative, implications of the line to a new Sutherland Bridge over the North Platte River, and a portion of the Mormon Trail, located just north of the North Platte River.

"As you know, a site visit was also held on June 12, 2014, and it was attended by Jim Jenniges, Michelle Koch, and me. We spent a considerable amount of time traveling the Preferred R-Project Route alternative and an additional NPPD-proposed alternative located just east of the Preferred alternative, west of Hershey.

"The purpose of this E-mail is to summarize the main points at the two site visits held on June 12 and 16 and to make recommendations for how to move forward being mindful of requirements of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA) and the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). Careful consideration is needed for the development of a preferred alternative to ensure that NPPD maintains compliance with MBTA. Additionally, as you know the Service is moving forward with preparation of an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) under NEPA to support issuance of a section 10 permit which may authorize take of the federally endangered American burying beetle. The EIS will address not just issuance of the take permit, but the entire R-Project including affects to other Federal and State Trust fish and wildlife resources including migratory birds—preparation of the EIS essentially federalizes the entire R-project given that the project cannot proceed without authorization to take the ABB under a section 10 permit. It will be difficult to prepare a defensible EIS if there is nearly a certainty of noncompliance with MBTA under the currently-proposed Preferred Alternative in these high bird concentration areas.

"Preferred alternative:

"The Preferred Alternative departs GGS and extends northward where it crosses the South Platte River. Of concern to the Service is that this crossing also extends over a perpetual conservation easement that is held by DU on a parcel of private property owned by Neil Hanson. The conservation easement is for a 1-mile-long segment of river frontage and extends along the north bank. The purpose of the conservation easement is for conservation of migratory waterfowl and other birds. During the course of the site visit on June 12 we learned that there are no federal funds associated with this easement. Since that time, however, we have learned that apparently there remains a federal interest in this conservation easement via parcel swapping involving North American Wetland Conservation Act (NAWCA) funds. We suggest that you contact Steve Donovan of DU for clarification and verification. Please notify me if it is determined that a federal interest remains for this conservation easement via federal funds or parcel swaps. I have cc’ed Steve on this E-mail as a heads-up to him.

"The preferred alternative extends northward across several pivots before it intersects with a sand hill, east of Sutherland and heads northward across several meadows and wetlands. As you know, the crop fields in the area provide a considerable amount of habitat for sandhill cranes and other waterfowl in the spring and fall. We are concerned about avian collisions with the R-Project power line in this area given the high concentration of migratory birds in the spring and fall. The R-Project power line makes a turn to the west and then extends northward where it crosses the North Platte River near the Sutherland Bridge. As you know, our preference is always for burial of power lines at river crossings if possible to eliminate all risk of avian collision. If that is not possible, power line crossings at bridges is our next preferred approach as birds tend to avoid areas with increased activities such as bridge traffic.

"From here the power line extends northward through typical sandhill habitat for a few miles, then turns east and crosses Birdwood Creek at a pinch point along the creek. We have learned since our June 12 meeting, however, that the proposed crossing at the pinch point is immediately downstream from a large sandhill crane roost. The area of the crossing contains an abundance of high quality wetland and wet meadow habitats that are used by a diversity and abundance of migratory birds. We are concerned about the proposed crossing in this area because it presents an obvious large risk to migratory birds that use Birdwood creek. We are all too familiar with the risk that such power lines pose to migratory birds when constructed in these kinds of areas and would recommend power line burial to avoid all risk of avian collision here. After crossing Birdwood Creek, the line extends eastward for several miles before it intersects with highway 83 and goes north.

"During our June 12, site visit we also toured an alternative proposed by NPPD, but subsequently eliminated from further consideration. This alternative appears to convey even greater risk to migratory birds via two river crossings over the North and South Platte Rivers, and crossings over a large amount of cropland that provides foraging habitat for migratory birds including large concentrations of sandhill cranes and a large meadow complex on the north side of the North Platte River. This alternative also extends near an area with several playa wetlands, located north of the North Platte River which, as you know, provides habitat for an abundance and diversity of migratory birds including a federally endangered whooping crane confirmed there this last spring.


"We have determined that the Preferred Alternative and the other NPPD Alternative (now eliminated from further consideration), both convey great risk to migratory birds, primarily through risk from avian collision with the R-Project power lines. We base this on knowledge of the concentration of migratory birds in the area, two site visits, and firsthand knowledge of the risk that power lines pose to large concentrations of migratory birds. As you know, the MBTA prohibits the intentional and unintentional direct take of migratory birds. Given the concentration of migratory birds in the area it will be difficult for NPPD to maintain compliance with provisions of the MBTA for either alternative.

"We recommend that NPPD do the following using a criteria of NPPD being able to be in compliance with MBTA given the high level of risk associated with power line collisions by large concentrations of migratory birds that are known to frequent the area. Additionally, it is important to keep in mind the relationship between MBTA compliance and defensibility of the EIS as mentioned above. Other alternatives/approaches may be worthwhile to consider evaluating as well—this should not be considered an all-inclusive list of recommendations.

"a) Re-evaluate the preferred alternative and consider alterations to it to avoid and minimize risk to migratory birds. Of great concern is the risk to large concentrations of migratory birds at the currently proposed crossing locations at the South Platte River and Birdwood Creek. We are also concerned about the power line being located in or near conservation easements, cropfields, wetlands, and meadows that provide migratory bird habitat. We appreciate NPPD’s willingness to install bird flight diverters on a large portion of the Preferred alternative line route. However, as you know, BFDs are considerably less that 100 percent effective. A large number of birds can still be killed when they are in large concentrations even when BFDs are installed.
"b) Consider proposing a new alternative that crosses existing bridges and extends along highways in the Hershey-Sutherland area including the need for potential avoidance and minimization measures.
"c) Evaluate the feasibility of the “east of North Platte alternative” that was presented at the June 16 meeting including potential avoidance and minimization measures.

"We recognize the challenges faced by NPPD in the planning and construction of this R-project and appreciate the open lines of communication that have developed over the years as we have worked on other large power line projects together. As always, we would be willing to provide NPPD with technical assistance on this issue including additional site visits and meetings."

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This is the response from Thomas J. Kent, the vice-president and chief operating officer of NPPD, as provided to the FWS. This email is being presented here as it is public information as received the FWS, and includes only the pertinent portion of the email.

"When the District first began studying the area around Gerald Gentleman Station (GGS) to determine how best to get the lines out of GGS and along the Sutherland Reservoir and across the Platte River, the District determined that going west out of GGS and then north and back east, would create interferences with multiple existing single circuit and double circuit transmission lines that would result in greater risk to the reliability of the District’s electric system. We also found that the area encompassing the route being proposed by Mr. Kelly includes portions of Birdwood Creek and other tributaries, and contains conservation easements, land in a Wetland Reserve Program area, numerous homes, and three private airstrips that would all need to be considered in the routing process. The area also poses significant challenges due to the lack of roads, ruggedness of the terrain, and the softness of the sandy hills. As a result of these factors, the area encompassing this proposed route was analyzed and eliminated from further consideration for the Project."

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