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SunZia transmission line project ill-sited for birds

August 6, 2018

We are writing to express our concerns regarding bird impacts because of SunZia’s two proposed 500 kV transmission lines crossing the Rio Grande.

Our grass-roots organizations have worked together with New Mexico’s middle Rio Grande communities, agencies and Native tribes to protect the Rio Grande ecosystem for over 20 years.

A missing and critical component of the story is SunZia’s wildlife expert testified the environmental impact statement did not address the chosen Escondida, N.M., Rio Grande crossing. This was revealed at the New Mexico Public Regulation Commission hearing held in June. The PRC hearing transcripts are available to the public.

The migratory bird map gives a clear visual of the importance of the middle Rio Grande as the only quality corridor for migratory birds in this arid desert environment and shows why SunZia’s transmission lines will act as a bird snare, maximizing bird kills at the proposed Rio Grande crossing at Escondida, the narrowest passage between three wildlife refuges.

The Rio Grande is a fragile ecosystem, and the proposed line location has a high concentration of migrant birds: summer nesting birds, wintering birds such as the sandhill crane, and threatened and endangered birds species. Some of the largest wetland complexes left in New Mexico still exist in this area, making it crucial to protect this unique middle Rio Grande riparian wetland complex.

Through our collaborative efforts with agencies, Native tribes, other nonprofits and communities, we have obtained $5 million in federal funding through the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service-North American Wetlands Conservation Act grants to protect migratory bird habitat, including projects in Bernalillo, Valencia, Sandoval and Socorro counties.

The conservation projects included restoration and enhancement on tribal lands, Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, and included $500,000 for purchasing Valle del Oro and creating wetlands on the urban refuge. The grants also included 23 Rio Grande Agricultural Land Trust conservation easements that protect private land near the proposed Rio Grande crossing. SunZia’s transmission lines will not only directly impact migratory birds but will compromise the conservation value of this area’s crucial migratory bird habitat. This will make it difficult to obtain conservation funds for the entire middle Rio Grande.

Since 2008, tracking and responding to this project has been a challenging game of bait and switch. As late as 2014, alternate routes were discussed, yet public hearings ended in 2012. Requests were made for line burial under the river at any location in order to minimize bird impacts. SunZia’s response at that time was that the technology did not exist to make this possible, yet they agreed to go underground for five miles adjacent to White Sands Missile Range.

SunZia is being marketed as a “renewable energy” transmission line. Its permit request to PRC only states the line will transmit a “substantial amount of energy generated by renewable sources.”

We request SunZia to consider an alternate Rio Grande crossing; any river crossing be buried under the river; for permitting agencies to require a thorough Environmental Impact Statement and National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA, process for the chosen route and allow for public comment; and a legal agreement ensuring only renewable energy is transmitted through the interstate lines.

Cecilia Rosacker is a Socorro farmer and director of the Rio Grande Agricultural Land Trust. Alan Hamilton is director of Rio Grande Return and chairman of Intermountain West Joint Venture State Conservation. Gina Dello Russo, Socorro County resident and board member of Save Our Bosque Task Force, also contributed to this op-ed.

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