BURLEY, Idaho • The Bureau of Land Management has approved eight of 10 segments of the Gateway West Transmission Project.
The project, jointly proposed by Rocky Mountain Power and Idaho Power, will build and operate about 1,000 miles of 230- and 500-kilovolt transmission line between the Windstar substation near Glenrock, Wyo., and the Hemingway substation near Melba.
The BLM approved segments 1 through 7, which includes a controversial section through private land in Cassia County, and segment 10. The BLM plans to defer a decision to approve or deny segments 8 and 9 until the agency can conduct additional stakeholder outreach and public engagement. BLM spokesperson Heather Feeney said segments 8 and 9 lie in the southwest part of the state east of Jerome and Twin Falls and northwest of Murphy.
Feeney said the BLM delayed approval of those segments because of the proximity to the Snake River Birds of Prey National Conservation Area.
“We wanted to avoid any impacts to that area,” Feeney said. “We’re confident that we’ll find a route through there that will satisfy everyone’s needs.”
The approved segments are not dependent on the deferred segments and the decision will allow the proponents to begin construction for only the approved segments once they meet all necessary conditions identified in the right-of-way grant. The BLM will work toward making a decision to approve or deny the two remaining segments.
The Landowners’ Battle
The BLM’s decision does not grant any right-of-way for the project on private land, although the agency’s approved route traverses more private than public lands.
“It is a complete distortion of private property rights,” said Brent Stoker, chairman of the Cassia County Gateway West Task Force. The Cassia County task force banded with seven other counties to oppose the utility companies’ plan to site the line on privately owned land. The counties established an interlocking electrical transmission corridor to force the placement of any incoming public utilities.
“I don’t know in the long-term what the ROD (Record of Decision) will change,” said Stoker. “It will still likely come down to a court battle.”
Stoker said this project is just the tip of the iceberg and if it is sited on private ground, it will set precedence for more utilities to follow.
The approved route will directly affect about 40 landowners in Cassia County and dozens more who are farming partners.
Stoker said all the property owners in the county have signed a document stating they will not allow the companies on their property for any surveying.
“It’s critical that we have a united front and even more critical that the county stands behind us,” Stoker said. “The land owners have a lot to lose.”
They will likely have a long fight ahead of them, he said.
Stoker, who initially led the county’s charge against the project, has been asked by the county commissioners to remain at the head of the task force.
Stoker said the initial proposal for the line cut right through his dairy, but since then the route was diverted.
“They could see I was going to blow up all over that and since then that line disappeared from our property,” Stoker said.
Stoker said he could not reveal how much they have spent opposing the use of private property. Costs have been split between Cassia and Power counties and two private landowner groups, and they run in the six digits, he said.
“There is hope here or I wouldn’t be hanging in there,” Stoker said.
Bureau of Land Management Project Manager Walt George said the entire ROD document encompasses 2,000 pages with 90 pages dedicated to the BLM’s decision. The BLM will now issue the power partners a 30-year land grant with a right-to-renewal to use public lands. The BLM will also issue the partners a five-year construction grant, after which any additional lands used in the construction process will be reclaimed.
George said the decision was slightly delayed by the three-week federal government shutdown that took many of the employees involved in the review process out of the office.
George said the power companies will have to provide finalized designs to the BLM before the project can proceed.
Ready to Move Forward
“We are very pleased with the completion of this step,” said Margaret Oler, spokesperson for Pacific Corp, which has two business units, Rocky Mountain Power and Pacific Power. The company provides power to six states.
Oler said the company will now begin the local permitting and obtainment of right-of-way on private land.
“This is not the end of the road,” Oler said. “We still have a lot of work to do.”
The project will also need approval from the Idaho Public Utilities Commission.
Oler said no construction dates are set but the project will be completed in phases with each phase going into operation as it is completed.
The project is estimated to go into service for customers sometime between 2019 and 2023.
Brad Bowlin, corporate communications specialist for Idaho Power, said Idaho Power’s interest in the project lies in the western end of the project and Rocky Mountain Power is more interested in the eastern end, where construction will begin.
“We don’t anticipate the delay in approval on those two segments will affect our construction schedule,” Bowlin said.