A small grove of mature pine trees — one of which holds an eagle’s nest and two bald eagles — will have to come down if the Swan Lake Energy Storage powerline is stretched across Leonard Jespersen’s ranch.
That’s not all. Jespersen says he’ll have to take down two hay barns, remove 14 irrigation pivots and a 300-foot swath of trees, essentially cutting his hay field production.
Further, the lines will clearly be in view from his front door, replacing the pine trees and lush green hayfields that are there now.
The Swan Lake Energy Storage project recently won a 50-year license from the Federal Regulatory Energy Commission (FERC), which includes a 32.8-mile route for a 230-kilovolt powerline that will carry electricity from the site south to Malin.
Plans are to begin construction of the plant by 2021 by a Boston-based company called Rye Development. Rye is also planning the Gladstone, Wash., pumped-storage plant just off the Columbia River.
About 200 landowners are affected by the route, which the project owners say cannot be altered at this point.
“It’s done,” said Erik Steimle, spokesman for Rye.
Lack of communication
“We have never been contacted by Rye Development, none of the landowners,” an exasperated Jespersen told the Herald and News late last week. “They have contacted the Tribes, the Fish and Wildlife and all of the federal agencies, but not the taxpaying landowners.”
However, top Rye Development officials intend to meet privately with the landowners starting as early as next month, said Steimle, to negotiate equitable compensation for taking the 600-foot-wide right-of-way across their land.
The powerlines will be supported with 100-foot single towers, made to blend into the surrounding terrain. It will run from the power plant site that sits north of the Swan Lake marsh, south to the Malin power grid.
Above or below ground
Landowners Jespersen, Dave McLin and Del Fox farm and ranch in the Pine Flat area of the route, off Highway 140 just west of Dairy. They sat down with the Herald and News to express their disappointment in the final route. The landowners are asking that the powerline be buried — 3 to 6 feet down — rather than take their farmland out of production.
“I’m not against the project,” said McLin, who grows Timothy hay on about 850 acres. “But it will affect four families that work on my ranch. I would rather it be buried than take that land out of production.”
The powerline runs 6.9 miles through the middle of Jespersen’s 2,500-acre ranch, forcing him to remove 14 irrigation pivots and a couple of new hay barns.
For McLin, the powerline runs through 1½ miles of his land, where a road sits just off the OC&E Trail.
“We will have to re-engineer the middle of our ranch to accommodate their lines,” McLin said.
The idea that the majority of the powerline runs across BLM land is a lie, said Del Fox, who has about 45 acres to farm.
“Of the 33 miles, there’s at least 10 miles in Pine Flat, and some near Malin that are on private land,” said Fox. “And we don’t know just how many towers will be on our land.” Fox — a former budget committee member for Klamath County — contends the company has not been truthful in its filing or its dealing with the public on several issues.
10 years in the making
The project is not new to anyone in the valley, as it has been in the planning stages for more than a decade. However, the ranchers believed that interest in it had died out a few years ago.
Rye spokesman Steimle has worked on the project for most of those 10 years, albeit with different companies.
“I started working on this project during its initial development between 2010 and 2013, when we conducted a transmission line routing alternative analysis,” he said.
“We met with the ranchers back then. Part of that was finding a practical route from point A to point B; we started there with feedback from the public. As it became more complex, we worked with the resource agencies and the Tribes and their constraints they put on the landscape (route).”
Because the route crosses BLM land, there had to be a full FERC permitting process that was long, complex and extremely comprehensive, Steimle said.
“The only thing that would be more involved would be if you were trying to build a nuclear facility in Klamath County,” he said.
Initially, the company looked at five alternative powerline routes.
“We were looking for one that did not cross any existing structures; that used the most available amount of right-of-way; and impacted the least amount of cultural and environmental issues; and had the least amount of impact such as on existing roads and right of ways. That’s what we prepared in our application to FERC for their environmental impact statement.”
It took almost five years to gather that information, he said. “The best attended meeting was in 2011-1012 at the county fairgrounds where we had hundreds of people express their opinion about the routes.”
Once FERC took the application, it did its own analysis and eventually settled on the route through Pine Flat.
Can it be buried? No, says Steimle.
“Burying the line would be cost prohibitive because of the rock that is underneath.” That rock can be seen lining Jespersen’s road through his ranch, boulders that had to be cleared to make the land useful to grow hay.
"Why not spend a little more of an almost $900 million project to bury the line?" asked Fox.
Cost vs. aesthetics
“The way I look at it is they’ve done it backwards, they should have contacted us first,” Jespersen said. “We should have negotiated with them where we wanted the powerlines and how it would have affected us. The only notification has been in the legal ads in the H&N. And they had their public meetings (in town) in the summertime when we’re busy haying, so we can’t be involved in the talks.”
Fox noted the company, “is offering $830 annualized cost per tax lot a year for 30 years. Let me tell you something. I make $1,200 an acre on my ground. I’m only losing 5 acres, but that’s insane.”
Further, there is the fear that the FERC license will give Rye the power of eminent domain to take the land.
“We’re not the type to march or hold signs at a public protest," noted McLin. "But we’re conservationists by the clearest definition of the term and want to protect our land."
The next few weeks will tell how the issue will play out, as top Rye officials come to town to talk with the ranchers. The meetings were arranged by U.S. Congressman Greg Walden, who will be in the Basin for a town hall Saturday.