28 July 2017

Land Impacts by NPPD Indicated by Corps of Engineers Document

The Nebraska Public Power District in mid-May applied for a nationwide permit from the Army Corps of Engineers that would allow them to place fill in wetlands along the corridor of the r-project.

This is a section of text from the letter submitted to the federal agency: “NPPD is applying for a Nationwide Permit (NWP) 12 (2017 issue) for Utility Line Discharges from the US Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) to authorize the loss of less than 0.50 acre of waters of the United States (US) from fill.”

The document submitted to the Corps is titled “R-Project – Pre-Construction Notification – Application No. 2012-02858” as prepared by consultant company Power Engineers and with a date of May 10, 2017. This document was provided by the federal agency after three Freedom of Information Act requests.

What is very prominent was that NPPD did not just apply for a permit from the Corps, but they applied for a particular type of permit, and made certain that the indicated impact to wetlands was below the threshold that would have required an individual permit requiring a public notice and allow public review.

A Problematic Application

Amidst the extensive information in the document, there are several items which are very problematic based upon a review of details.

The application is basically built upon a false premise that immediately becomes evident in Figure 1, showing the project location. This map differs from other maps showing the “final transmission line route” as given in other project review documents also issued in May, especially the draft environmental impact statement released by the Fish and Wildlife Service. Even the permit area map given as Figure 1 in the Habitat Restoration Plan portion of the document submitted to the Corps has an alignment different from what is shown in Figure 1 shown on previous pages.
The map given in the Corps documents has three obvious changes: 1) northeast Blaine county eastward of Highway 7 which shows a shift southward; 2) just west of Highway 183 in northern Loup county and in the vicinity of the Calamus river which shows a shift northward; and, 3) a slight southerly shift in northwest Garfield county on the south side of Carson lake.

Map indicating three instances of changes in the supposed "final route" for the proposed R-Project transmission line.

These changes have occurred despite the continued and repeated insistence by NPPD that the route is final, but this claim apparently applies only until the utility company decides to make changes to suit their purpose.

It needs to be indicated that NPPD cannot convey a definitive final route for the industrial powerline until NPPD has signed, legal agreements for any right-of-way for access. There are indications that there are few such signed easements, notably in Blaine and Thomas counties, where an evaluation was done by an advocate to prevent construction of the r-project industrial powerline.

This application conveys a tentative route that is a convoluted route of many changes here and there in directions to such an extreme that there is hardly ever any long length of straight-line alignment in comparison to other powerline alignments shown maps within the NPPD documentation.

The draft restoration management plan portion of the document indicates that there will be “temporary disturbance activities” in 1,042 acres within the permit zone and 465 acres outside the permit area. Each site will “require restoration efforts” as described in this plan. This extent of acres as being directly impacted according to the NPPD application includes both lowland and upland localities.

Placement of Fill in Wetlands

An essential component of the document is an evaluation of where fill will be placed. The only item for which jurisdictional fill is being considered is for the proposed monopoles where there is an indicated value of “0.001” acres of impact for each monopole structure. Though steel-lattice structures would be placed directly into in wetland areas and the aquifer, there is an exemption on any fill activity as the anchor screws have been legally defined as not being a type of fill. Most of indicated activity associated with permanent fill are denoted in a similar numeric factor of 0.000 extent.

There is an overall list of places where construction activity would take place within the multiple county area which the powerline would traverse. There are dozens of places that will require temporary fill, and which will exceed a minimally indicated more than 40 acres overall for dozens of miles – for which there is no indicated extent – of vehicular routes for items such as “overland travel access” or pull sites, or temporary work areas as well as fly yards. Pictures with the document indicate particular wetland places where impacts will occur.

There is no indication on the number of times that NPPD-associated vehicular traffic will traverse a particular route, as the number of times heavy equipment crosses a grassland or meadow, the impact will increase. What if it is a very wet season when construction crews want to travel to a particular tower site? There are times following extensive precipitation when wet meadows should not be traversed. The NPPD application does not consider such conditions. What if a big truck gets stuck in a meadow, and other big equipment is required to extract it from the wetland? This will result in a deep gouge into the ground, and not simply be a track across the land.

At four indicated places where culverts will be installed, the banks of the waterway will be altered to a configuration that will conform to the circular or oval shape of the metal culvert. Dirt will be placed within the waterway and atop the structure to allow vehicle travel. This is not a temporary disturbance.

The “temporary” designation for travel access is a not particularly considered in any specific manner by the document. Will NPPD will continue to traverse these routes for powerline maintenance and any emergency access? There is an obvious need of the utility company for regular, perhaps twice a year maintenance work. If a culvert is required for a construction route, it seems reasonable that this same construct will be needed for additional future and expected access.

There is nothing in the document submitted by NPPD that even considers the access necessary for the required continued maintenance and emergency access of powerline features. How will any utility company truck(s) traverse routes across the hills after a substantive snowfall exceeding 12 inches and perhaps with ongoing blizzard-like conditions? They will not be able to do any such thing. So rather than align the powerline along already established rights-of-way, they instead prefer to place the line where access will not be possible during severe winter weather, so any repairs will need to be delayed until some later time.

Since the r-project is not intended to provide a powerline for “local” customers, instead any outage might be locally irrelevant, but the overall power grid will be operating in a deficient manner. This situation does not conform with the intent of NPPD and the Southwest Power Pool to improve quality of service.

It needs to be noted that wetland delineation occurred only at places where the landowner allowed “right of entry” so any wetland evaluation is only partial since some property owners may have denied access to their property. There were three dates, primarily during the 2016 growing season, when field surveys were done by hired consultants.

There is a claim made that any “temporary fill” within wetlands will be removed following the completion of the powerline construction. The document indicates: “4) temporary fill will be removed in its entirety, and the affected area will be restored to its pre-construction condition including seeding wetlands with appropriate native hydrophytic species as needed; and 5) when temporary fills are placed in a wetland, a horizontal marker will be used to demarcate the existing ground elevation in order to restore the wetlands to pre-construction conditions.”

There is no indication of any effort by NPPD to conduct work in wet meadow areas during times of the year when the ground is frozen, which would reduce impacts. If the ground is frozen, perhaps the placement of fill would not be required as it would be hard ground traversed rather than a soft-ground water-saturated soil. NPPD has not considered this alternative.

There is no timeframe indicating when any temporary fill would be removed. This needs to precisely defined so that NPPD cannot simply wait years or until some time of their choosing.

It is impossible for any entity to restore each and every wetland to “pre-construction conditions.” Once a wetland is disturbed by being filled to some extent, and then when excavation occurs to remove the fill, it is forever altered. Only time will allow recovery, and this will be influenced the overall extent of alteration and by any artificial seeding.

Within the report, there is, of course, a section on “Avoidance, Minimization, and Compensation” with one pertinent statement: “Restrict all construction vehicle movement outside the ROW to pre-designated access or public roads, and restrict the use of other roads or areas to emergency situations.”

This is a statement which is directly the opposite of what is shown in the NPPD document to develop new travel access routes for construction, many of which are outside the powerline right-of-way. This statement would seem to indicate that there will be no new access routes developed though NPPD will obviously create new travel routes through the hills to suit their needs.

Powerline Route Maps

A key section of the document provided to the Corps is Appendix B, the “Wetland Map Book” which comprises 81 images showing particular segments of the powerline route with land features shown in association with the powerline alignment and the proposed r-project access route within these counties: Lincoln (where two forested wetlands along the South Platte river will be cleared; these two locations are not indicated in the tabular fill summary because it is vegetative removal, not placement of fill. There is a similar situation at the North Platte river), Logan, Thomas, Blaine, Loup (with maps for ca. 20 sections of the proposed powerline route), Garfield (ca. 15 segments), Holt (ca. 12 segments) and Wheeler.
These are some example of the route maps indicating prominent land features. After looking at the “map book” time and time and time again, these maps conveys some of the most notable indications associated with the proposed powerline route and access routes as derived from some example computer screen captures from the document provided by the Corps.

Crossing the North Platte River. Note how the powerline alignment does not adhere to the westerly North Prairie Trace Road because there would not be a “pull-site” available at the western extent of the corridor and along a roadway, as such a place would be within the river, so instead the line will be placed through forested wetlands rather than along the road.

North Loup River northwest of Brewster.

Along Gracie Creek avenue. The dashed black lines indicate the proposed route. How will the topography will altered so that the immediate setting of the powerline tower is suitable for an industrial lattice tower. This is a situation all along this indicated segment of the proposed r-project.

Note the topography of this site for a powerline construct at the western end of Gracie Creek Avenue. It seems that NPPD will conform the site to make it suitable for a lattice tower, rather than conform their construct to the natural contours of the hills. The marker pictured - and others in the immediate vicinity - are nothing but trash on the land.

This location is on the Hawley Flats. The powerline pole will be placed directly west of the county road and within the wetland extent. Because of legal machinations, placing the steel-lattice tower within this wetland site, it is not considered to be sort of fill activity. Notice how the map is erroneous as it calls the road “Holly Flats” which is an obvious and notable error.

This is a photograph taken in April 2017 which shows a marker indicating the specific location of an industrial powerline tower. There are additional impacts due to the imposition of pull areas and work yards to the south.

Alignment shift at the south side of Carson lake in northwest Garfield county. The route of the proposed powerline could follow a county road westward of the lake, and then continue along the county road alignment rather than traverse overland through a lake setting and wetland meadows and other portions of a natural landscape.

Along Highway 11. There was an access route of a greater extent selected to avoid any crossing associated with Big Cedar creek.

Southward of Goose Lake WMA. At Highway 183 the utility company decided to move the live southward to an alignment where there is no access route, rather than make the effort to just have a straight-line alignment along county road 846.

Despite the extent of proposed access routes associated with the conveyed alignment of an industrial powerline, the details given to the Corps and other federal agencies are associated only with a proposed corridor. This document indicates that the potential impact is much greater because of ancillary routes of vehicular travel. Yet this has received only slight consideration via the ACE document. Every consideration needs to be given to the overall particulars, not just some chosen portion of an industrial construct. The details given represent a “false reality” which is not an overall reality accepted by residents of the Sand Hills.

Vegetative Restoration

Essential to any review of wetland conditions is an evaluation of the flora, and there are those details given in the permit application. Appendix E provides the “wetland determination data forms” as prepared for some sites along the project corridor.

Why is it that the species indicated to be used to reestablish the disturbed vegetation – based upon some report or another – do not include the species actually documented as growing at a several locales? Subtle nuances in plant growth represent centuries of adaptation yet NPPD prefers to use a few so-called “representative studies” to make decisions on what needs to be seeded, with there being an obvious focus only on some representative grassland species.

Representative species actually present on the east-west segment of the line include, for example, include these sorts of plants as indicated on many “Wetland Determination Data Form” reports prepared for site surveys, notably in the route along County Road 846 in southern Holt county and northern Wheeler county: Carex (sedges), different species of Juncus (rushes), Calamagrostis stricta (slimstem reedgrass), Ratibida columnifera (upright prairie coneflower), Verbena stricta (hoary verbena), Liatris aspera (a gayfeather species), Agrostris giganteum (= A. gigantea; a grass species), Eleocharis compressa (flatstem spikerush) at several sites, Trifolium pratense (red clover), Ambrosia psilostachya (Cuman ragweed), Phalaris arundinacea (reed canarygrass), Typha angustifolia (narrowleaf cattail), Distichlis spicata (inland saltgrass), Spartina pectinata (prairie cordgrass) and numerous other sorts of plants as documented during site surveys.

A claim conveyed in the NPPD document is that all restoration will be completed with a five-year timeframe, with monitoring of the restoration efforts. The document states: “A formal Effectiveness Monitoring Report will be submitted to USFWS only for Zone 1, because that is the area of the project under USFWS jurisdiction through the ITP. The annual report will be prepared following each late-summer monitoring session, which will include results from the effectiveness monitoring and document progress toward achieving the performance standards. If performance standards are met, the fifth annual report (end of five-year monitoring) will be the final report on restoration effectiveness. If performance standards are not met within the initial five-year monitoring period, adaptive management measures will be implemented and post-construction restoration effectiveness monitoring will be extended until the standards are met. Any data collected for Zone 2 will be kept by NPPD to document restoration success.”

It is not apparent how this information will be available for public consideration and that there would be any sort of review of efficacy.

The seeding mix indicated in the document submitted to the Corps does not represent the overall flora present and thus lacks any proper suitability in any indicated vegetative restoration. The species listed in the document are primarily focused on grass species, mostly ignoring forbs and other sorts of plants which exist in a naturally adapted vegetative setting.

Considering the Section 404 Evaluation

The pre-construction document received from the Corps after three Freedom of Information Act requests, comprises 45 pages and several appendices as prepared by Power Engineers for the utility company so it comprises a much greater extent of pages.

Due to the many problems with a permit request by NPPD, the application needs to be elevated to an individual permit where the public can review details in a timely manner and that there would also be a public hearing or two in the proposed project area, preferably Brewster and then Burwell. To do anything otherwise, would be an intentional decision that disregards the public and most notably ranch-country residents.