By Cecelia Marshall, December 13th 2012
Tread lightly and with a keen eye. Otherwise, you’ll miss its camouflaged plumage. The southwestern willow flycatcher perches on a willow branch hanging over the glistening San Pedro River in southern Arizona. It flits from its branch and dips its white-dashed wings in the water. After snatching an insect, the flycatcher retreats to its branch.
Like many of the birds here, the flycatcher has traveled far—more than 2,000 miles from Ecuador. The San Pedro River Valley provides a resting place as well as a corridor to continue its migration north, as far as Alaska, to breed in the spring.
This threatened species might not have long to rest there, though. Its riparian habitat might be in danger because of SunZia, a new high-voltage electric transmission power line.
SunZia brings energy to Southwest
The SunZia Southwest Transmission Project launched its development plans in early 2008 to run two bi-directional transmission power lines about 460 miles from New Mexico to Arizona. The lines, connected by five substations, would transmit 3,000 megawatts of renewable energy generated by both wind turbines and solar panels to customers in southern Arizona and New Mexico.
The project is said to improve the reliability of power transfer. It would create thousands of jobs in this economy. And it would obtain renewable power resources of southern Arizona and New Mexico−the “nation’s solar powerhouse”—which is needed to meet the nation’s electricity needs and reduce dependency on fossil fuels.
But at what cost to the environment? Transmission line construction would fragment habitats along the San Pedro River Valley. River flow would slow because of groundwater pumping to growing populations. And migrating birds would collide with power lines hundreds of feet high. As many as 000 birds could die each year.
Land Management works with SunZia for alternative routes
Numerous alternative routes are under discussion. Environmentalists, Bureau of Land Management employees and SunZia project planners are meeting separately and jointly to plan the best route possible for the energy line.
The original proposed route cuts across the San Pedro River and follow the river north on the western side. The stakeholders are trying to agree on a new route that would be economic, effective and least damaging to the environment. However, with the projected path, the transmission lines would inevitably cross the San Pedro River either north of San Manuel in Pinal County or north of Benson in Cochise County.
SunZia has recommended an alternative route, according to spokesperson Ian Calkins. This route “has substantially less mileage, cost and environmental impact” and “does not parallel the San Pedro River and its unique riparian environment for approximately 45 miles,” wrote Tom Wray in a letter on the SunZia draft environmental impact statement.
The Bureau of Land Management’s preferred alternative route runs almost 550 miles across 191 miles of federal lands, 226 miles of state lands and 113 miles of private land in Arizona or New Mexico they will purchase. Steel towers about 160 feet high will be spaced some 1,400 feet apart. The line will wind from New Mexico to Arizona, interconnected by five substations.
Although SunZia and the BLM want to use existing roads for construction and transportation of materials, they acknowledge the need to build roads where necessary, which may hurt the environment. “We’re concerned mostly with the portion that crosses public lands that we have to protect,” said Diane Drobka, contact at the BLM’s Tucson field office.
The BLM has been working with SunZia’s project managers to propose an alternative route that would please SunZia stakeholders, community members and conservationists. Last spring the BLM proposed a route that would follow the west side of the San Pedro River Valley and cross the river about 30 miles north of Benson.
A variety of people, not only conservationists, expressed their concerns about the original SunZia route. “Everybody has their different reasons,” Drobka said. Some residents don’t want gigantic towers directly outside their back porch.
“This project is already on a fast track because of its green energy source implications, but I hope we consider all of our options and I hope we pick the best one,” she said.
The project is on hold until the beginning of the year, when SunZia will file its final environmental impact statement and receive a final decision from the Bureau of Land Management.
“The bound copy of the environmental impact statement is 6 to 8 inches thick,” Drobka said. That means every component is thoroughly evaluated.
Bird migration and bird watching bring big bucks to the San Pedro River Valley
During the spring and fall migrations, more than four million birds fuel up along the San Pedro River Valley. They need three things—food, water and habitat for nesting. Each of these the San Pedro River Valley provide in abundance. Some, such as the western yellow-billed cuckoo and Lucy’s warbler, have flown from as far south as South America, said USGS scientist Glenn Johnson. He has been studying the nest records and breeding of the southwestern willow flycatcher along the upper river valley. Last summer he spent three months traveling up and down the valley to observe the diversity of bird species.
The southwestern willow flycatchers, camouflaged in olive gray, breed thick in the willows,. Their small beak—perfect for snatching insects and squishing berries—weave twigs into a nest. A white-ringed eye watches the slow water for building materials.
The riparian vegetation supports many different niches because of its elevation ranges, said Johnson. But human impact and natural changes in the river level over the last 100 years have reduced the flycatchers’ habitat. In the past 20 years, only three nests have been recorded.
Known for its bird species and diversity, the San Pedro has helped rank southern Arizona as the second best bird-watching area in the United States, according to U.S. Fish and Wildlife. Bird watching brings in people from across the nation and world. Birders generate $838 million in bird trip-related spending each year, according to a 2006 study by U.S. Fish and Wildlife.
“Bird watching is a bigger economic impact as a tourism than golf as a tourism in southern Arizona,” said U.S. Fish and Wildlife.
Nine sites along the San Pedro were identified as critical habitat for birds during their life cycle, including breeding, wintering, feeding and migration, by Susan Skagen, a research wildlife biologist with the U.S. Geological Survey.
“These [sites] are of national importance because they include some of the most important bird habitats in the United States,” said Ted Morris, a bird enthusiast and past president of Friends of the San Pedro River.
Fragility of San Pedro River Valley, its water and bird habitats
Naturalists, bird enthusiasts like Ted Morris and authors such as Barbara Kingsolver portray the San Pedro as one of the last untouched environments in the nation. From Mexico’s Sierra Madre foothills, the river gently flows north almost 100 miles into Arizona through the counties of Pinal, Cochise, Graham and Pima. Like the untamed West that surrounds it, the San Pedro River Valley is the last undammed and unchanneled river in the Southwest.
Its history of conservation has kept the river valley pristine. In 1988 the U.S. Congress declared to protect the river’s water, plants and animals.
The valley has faced threats before. In 2011 a federal judge struck down a plan to pump groundwater to Fort Huachuca. This pumping would have drained the river and exhausted the flycatcher’s food and water.
Water pumping from the San Pedro River by the SunZia project is still troubling.
“Our primary concern is the decline of the river itself,” Morris said.
The water underground determines the river’s flow. When groundwater is pumped, the underground water table drops and the flow of the river slows until it completely dries up. This happened to the Santa Cruz River when Tombstone pumped its water. People are afraid the same thing will happen, and the San Pedro’s water table will drop so low that the river will go dry.
“It doesn’t take long to realize that the desert river is fragile,” said Morris.
If the river goes dry, the millions of birds that migrate each year through the area won’t have enough food, water and habitat.
Over the last 15 years, Morris has already noticed a decline in green kingfisher breeding along the river—a trend likely to continue if SunZia comes in.
Bird collisions into SunZia power lines would increase bird mortality
Birds collide with electrical power lines. The greatest number of bird deaths, around 175 million, occur when power lines hang between resting and feeding areas.
The SunZia transmission wires would hang from the poles.
“Undoubtedly there will be mortality of birds,” Johnson said, but 90 percent of the time they will avoid flying into them.
The SunZia project would attract higher populations of birds?, again requiring the pumping of more groundwater.
“Infrastructure projects of SunZia’s scale are a foot-in-the-door to further urban incursions,” said Daniel Baker, president of the Cascabel Conservation Association. “It will invite off road vehicles, which are impossible to regulate in this remote area, and development will follow infrastructure as it has elsewhere, inevitably leading to habitat loss and alteration of this critical ecosystem,” he said.
Conservationists take a stand
The fact that the BLM is still negotiating with SunZia worries environmental and conservation working groups. If conservationists from the San Pedro River Valley have their way, the project would not exist. Norm Meader, co-president of the Cascabel Working Group, and others have led the charge against SunZia since the very beginning. Meader has lived in the San Pedro River Valley area for most of his life. He said he couldn’t bear to see the pristine wilderness taken away.
“If you really love the environment and you’re really a part of a place, you really don’t want to see this [disturbance] happen,” Meader said.
Cascabel Working group members come from a variety of backgrounds—farmers, birders, business owners, community members—have come together to oppose SunZia. Cascabel has worked with several other groups in the area, such as the Tucson Audubon Society and the Nature Conservancy. Their strategy is to devise alternatives for each proposal proposed by SunZia, said Pete Etse, co-president of the Cascabel Working Group.
Cascabel has remained in touch with the BLM and SunZia representatives to come to a resolution, but some think not everyone has been fair. “The BLM has not remained a neutral party,” Etse said. “They are more proponents of the project than balanced.”
New roads would have to go beneath the lines, fragmenting the environment and bringing invasive species like bufflegrass, Etse said. “It would bisect the birds’ migratory corridor.”
Cascabel has hired biologists from Tucson Audubon and Nature Conservancy to inform them about the impact of SunZia’s routes.
“The wildlife is just so rich,” said Meader. Bears, foxes, coyotes and mountain lions come down to drink from the river. “We’ve had seven sightings of jaguarondis, and a true expert naturalist has found two separate tracks from jaguars.”
Plans for SunZia’s renewable energy transmission line will either end or move forward after the first of the year, but the southwestern willow flycatcher might not have much time, given the decrease in nesting areas.
Renewable energy would promote independence from fossil fuels and harness wind and solar power in the Southwest. But the environmental impact on the region the line touches and the biodiversity it changes is a cause for concern.
Etse sighed with distress. “It seems crazy to turn around and devalue and fragment [the environment] only to benefit others.”