21 February 2015

NPPD Reply to R-Project Email for FWS

From: Kent, Thomas J.
Sent: Wednesday, February 18, 2015 2:15 PM
To: 'robert_harms@fws.gov'
Cc: Citta Jr., Joseph L.; Hostetler, Bonnie J.; Linder, Larry D.; Jenniges, James J.; 'mike.fritz@nebraska.gov'; 'michelle.koch@nebraska.gov'; 'eliza_hines@fws.gov'; Holthe, Craig L.; Harding, Mary A- Board Member
Subject: South Alternative for the R-Project
Mr. Harms:

This e-mail is written in response to your e-mail dated February 13, 2015, wherein the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service) requested Nebraska Public Power District (NPPD) to review a new South Alternate Route for the R-Project. While NPPD appreciates the Service’s input regarding environmental concerns, the South Alternative Route that you described is not a feasible alternative for the R-Project because it does not satisfy the project’s purpose and need. Thus, NPPD intends to continue preparing its Habitat Conservation Plan based on the final route selected on January 20, 2015.

The need for the R-Project transmission line was identified by Southwest Power Pool (SPP) in its Integrated Transmission Plan. SPP, which NPPD is a member of, is a regional transmission organization that is governed by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to ensure that adequate transmission capacity is planned for, and reliable operation of the transmission system is provided in the nine-state SPP region, which includes Nebraska.

SPP issued a series of Notifications to Construct beginning in April 2012, wherein NPPD was ultimately notified to construct the following approved Network Upgrades: Build approximately 76 miles of new 345 kV transmission line from NPPD’s Gerald Gentleman Station north to the Cherry County area to connect to a new substation adjacent to NPPD’s existing substation east of Thedford, and then proceed east with approximately 146 miles of new 345 kV transmission line to connect to a second new substation to be sited near the existing Western Area Power Administration (WAPA) 345 kV transmission line in the Holt/Antelope/Wheeler County area. SPP ordered NPPD to construct these new facilities to meet the following needs: (1) enhance transmission system reliability by providing parallel paths for key contingencies in Nebraska; (2) relieve congestion from existing lines; and (3) provide opportunities for additional renewable energy generation.

NPPD’s initial study area was developed in the shape of a large “L” in order to meet the needs and benefits to the network upgrades that NPPD was ordered to construct by SPP. The study area was developed to go north from Gerald Gentleman Station to the Cherry County area, and then east to connect to the WAPA line. In developing the study area, corridors, and potential line routes, NPPD considered:

  • the location of section, half section, and township lines;
  • number of homes;
  • exclusion areas, such as existing homes, airports, and public buildings;,
  • minimization of property bi-sections;
  • maximization of the use of existing access roads and corridors;
  • crossing of river bottoms at perpendicular crossings or at existing bridges;
    crossing of river bottoms at perpendicular crossings or at existing bridges;
  • the influences of existing wetlands;
  • potential for ABB occurrence;
  • avoidance of crossing other existing transmission lines, especially 345 kV transmission lines;
  • the length of potential lines, which would increase impacts to more people;
  • the need for larger areas to site substations along the route;
  • topography; and
  • congestion around NPPD’s existing Gerald Gentleman Station.

The study area was sufficiently expansive to allow NPPD to identify locations of alternate routes within the study area that would enable NPPD to meet the requirements of the SPP Order to Construct, while minimizing impacts to landowners.

NPPD has spent approximately two and a half years completing a comprehensive process to identify the final route that was announced by NPPD on January 20, 2015. During this exhaustive process, NPPD: (1) conducted 26 open houses and meetings with the public; (2) held eight public hearings in eight different counties; (3) consulted with local, state, and federal government officials, including the Service, the Nebraska Department of Roads, the State Historical Society, the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers; and (4) accepted and analyzed more than 2,500 comments received during the routing process. In total, nearly 1,800 individuals attended the various open houses and hearings.

Determination of the final route was based on established line-routing criteria, which included more than 50 criteria, including proximity to occupied residences, towns, villages, and other amenities; the impact to farming and ranching operations; land use and environmental considerations; and engineering and construction criteria. Selecting a final line route that meets the project’s purpose and need while minimizing overall impacts is a careful balancing act of all of these criteria.

The South Alternate Route proposed by the Service angles through the central part of Nebraska, but does not meet one of the major requirements of the SPP Order to Construct facilities because it does not extend north of NPPD’s Gerald Gentleman Station to Thedford. After two and a half years of work, this project is not in the early stages of development, either in NPPD’s construction project itself, nor in the process the Service and NPPD are working on with respect to the development of the Habitat Conservation Plan and the Environmental Impact Statement.

Since the final route was announced in January of 2015, after the extensive process used by NPPD and described above, no additional routes for the R-Project Transmission Line will be considered for evaluation.

Thomas J. Kent, PE
Vice President & Chief Operating Officer
Nebraska Public Power District

Biologist Email on R-Project Sent to NPPD

From: Robert Harms
Sent: Friday, February 13, 2015 12:18 PM
To: Kent, Thomas J. Cc: Citta Jr., Joseph L.; Hostetler, Bonnie J.; Linder, Larry D.; Jenniges, James J.; Mike Fritz; michelle.koch@nebraska.gov; Holthe, Craig L.; Harding, Mary A- Board Member; Eliza Hines
Subject: South Alternative for the R-Project
Mr. Kent:

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service) requests that the Nebraska Public Power District (NPPD) evaluate a potential R‐project route alternative, herein referred to as the South Alternative, that appears to meet the purpose and need of the R‐project and have less environmental impact. We first became aware of this South Alternate route as an outcome of our public meeting in Burwell, Nebraska and a follow‐up January 21, 2015, meeting in the Burwell area that was requested by several ranchers.

We recognize that NPPD has selected a final route for the R‐project, but the project is still in the early stages of development. Thus, this should not preclude NPPD from conducting an evaluation of (or the Service advocating for) other less environmentally damaging alternatives that may arise; this is especially true given the substantial impact that the final R‐project route will have on federal trust fish and wildlife species, including federally listed threatened and endangered species and migratory birds.

South Alternative

The South Alternative for the R‐Project would start at an existing substation at the intersection of Highways 83 and 92 south of Stapleton, Nebraska and proceed east approximately 40 miles along Highway 92 to the east edge of Merna, Nebraska. The South Alternative would extend east approximately 10 miles to Road 444, northeast of Broken Bow, Nebraska. One half mile south of the intersection of Road 804 and Road 444 is the existing substation for a wind farm at Broken Bow. We have already been contacted by NPPD about the proposed new construction of a 115kV transmission line from the proposed Muddy Creek substation near Broken Bow to an existing substation south of Ord. We are aware that the proposed Muddy Creek substation siting area is near the existing wind farm substation referenced above. As such, the South Alternative could then extend along the proposed route that is already under consideration by NPPD from the Muddy Creek Substation to the Ord Substation. From the Ord substation, the South Alternative would follow Highway 70 to Highway 281, then turn north and parallel Highway 281, then extend east along an existing county road at the Wheeler and Holt County line to intersect the north‐south Western Area Power Administration line.

The South Alternative would have less environmental impact because the majority of it would extend across previously disturbed state and county road right of ways. Impacts to migratory birds would be significantly reduced from the impacts that are expected under the recently finalized route that extends across miles of remote meadows and wetland areas that annually provide a tremendous migration and nesting resource to migratory birds and other wildlife. The South Alternative would also just skirt the range of the federal and state endangered American burying beetle and federal and state threatened western prairie fringed orchid along the eastern edge and completely avoid the range of the federal and state endangered blowout penstemon. The existing final route now extends well within the range of the ABB, the majority of it is located in prime‐rated habitat for the species, and through areas where American burying beetle densities have been shown to be some the highest in the United States. The final route also extends well within the range of the western prairie fringed orchid; previous surveys confirm that the species is abundant in the meadows in the eastern portion of the final R‐project route. The final route also extends across the range of the blowout penstemon, whereas it does not under the South Alternative. While it is true that the South Alternative extends across 2 the whooping crane migration corridor and is located near the table playa wetlands east of Merna, Nebraska, its location paralleling Highway 92 would avoid impacts to the species because the whooping crane avoids areas along highways where noise and activity are prevalent.

In addition, the South Alternative route would avoid the majority of the Nebraska Sandhills and provide improved access for line construction and future maintenance because existing roads are nearby. The final route currently planned by NPPD calls for a significant number of access road upgrades and in many cases, crossing of meadows where compaction by heavy equipment may forever alter existing hydrology. Other benefits may also include a cost savings by using single pole structures installed from existing roads rather than towers that must be flown in by helicopter and installed using specialized equipment mounted on a tracked vehicle. Land restoration may be easier as well given that much of the South Alternative would extend across areas with loess/clay soils instead of sandy soils where erosion and post project restoration will be difficult.

Thank you for your careful consideration of this alternative—we look forward to your response. Please call or email me if I can provide further technical assistance or if you have questions. Thank you.

Robert R. Harms
Fish and Wildlife Biologist
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

10 February 2015

Wildlife Official Presents at Omaha Seminar

A biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife gave a presentation on protecting wild birds at a recent sediment and erosion control seminar at Omaha.

Robert R. Harms, of the Nebraska Field Office of the federal agency gave a talk titled "Migratory Bird Treaty Act and Construction Projects" at the "Building for the Future" seminar on February 5th, sponsored by the City of Omaha.

The presentation provided "information about the conservation of migratory birds and how the Migratory Bird Treaty Act helps to ensure that migratory birds are around for generations to come," he said.

"It was an opportunity to educate a large group of people and show them how the Migratory Bird Treaty Act is relevant to them and how to maintain compliance," Harms said. "Violations of MBTA generally occur because people don’t know migratory birds are federally protected — this was our opportunity to provide some education."

The Migratory Bird Treaty Act, enacted in 1918 as a federal law, prohibits "direct take" by either "intentional or unintentional means. Citations and fines can be issued, Harms indicated.

His talk gave particular points on how to avoid a violation:

  • "Don't wing it, deal with it
  • "Plan ahead
  • "Do clearing outside nesting season
  • "Survey during nesting season
    * "April 1 - July 15
    * "Qualified" surveyor
    * "Document results
    * "Take action"

Also discussed were the steps to take if a nest is found.

Harms' presentation — as given to about 300 people — and others from the seminar are available at the seminar website.

08 February 2015

Numerous Cellular Towers Planned for Western Sandhills

Plans for several new cellular communications towers in the western Sandhills were considered during 2014 by the Federal Aviation Administration. The structures are proposed for Grant county, Sheridan county, McPherson county, Thomas county and Cherry county.

These are the towers where the FAA has made a determination last year or just recently, according to the database available at the website of this federal agency, and where topographic maps indicate the precise location of the pending tower:

  • Swan Lake North (in Grant county northwest of Vinton Valley); an antenna tower 350 feet in height for Viaero Wireless; record completion date January 7, 2015
  • Lowe Ranch (just east of Lowe Ranch and Gross Valley); antenna tower 350 feet in height for Viaero Wireless; completion date 11/3/2014
  • Whitman (one mile northwest of Doc Lake); antenna tower 358 feet in height for Viaero Wireless; completion date November 6, 2014
  • Hyannis (atop a hill just to the east and southwest of the intersection of Highway 2 and 61); antenna tower 308 feet in height as represented by Viaero Wireless for Alltel Communications of Nebraska, Inc.; completion date November 28, 2014
  • Ellsworth North (two miles south of Highland Flats); antenna tower 200 feet in height for Viaero Wireless; completion date May 12, 2014
  • Minor Camp (eastward of Highway 61 about 2-3 miles southeast of the NET tower); antenna tower 200 feet in height for Viaero Wireless; completion date October 2, 2014
  • Thedford (three miles north); antenna tower 330 feet in height for Consolidated Connect Inc. of Lincoln; completion date August 25, 2014
  • Tryon (just northwest of Tryon); antenna tower 350 feet in height apparently for Viaero Wireless; record completion date March 25, 2014

The plan for a cellular tower proposed for the Pelican Beach Golf Course was submitted to the FAA on February 2, 2015, and a determination has not yet been made by the agency.

A summary of FAA records shows the on-going extent of temporary and permanent air obstructions proposals, representing communications towers, wind turbines, utility or light poles, power lines and even tall construction cranes. The number of records for the past five years are:

2014: 960
2013: 1379, including plans for wind turbines at Battle Creek, Broken Bow, Elgin, Fairbury, Greeley, Hallam, Neligh, Norfolk, O'Neill, Thedford (for southern Cherry county) and Verdigre
2012: 687
2011: 647
2010: 765

For 2015, there were already 99 case numbers issued as of the first week of February.

03 February 2015

Gray Sky Morning

Gray sky has settled on the black and green earth.
Muted edge of tree silouettes soften the horizon
as subdued light is the day's beginning.
A thunderstorm comes borne on the wind.
Lightning charges the morning sky.
Rolling thunder shakes free gray cloud moisture.
Rain falls to the parched country soil.
No sun will cure a prairie hay lying in a meadow.
Stacks across the hills piled to shed the wet.
Shorebirds probe in the mud of a marsh.
Small flocks scurry for an edible bit...
...run and feed at this drying wetland.
Wet crickets sing on the ground.
Grass and cattail dance in a northern wind.
Final strokes flash as fading thunder echos.
Fog clears to bring bright white.
Blue sky is gray sky gone.

Written September 11, 1991 at Carson Lake. ©1991 Jim Ducey.

Jim Ducey. May 15, 1998. Gray sky morning. In: Wetlands. Understanding a resource. University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources, Water Center. p. 3.