Wisconsin Update: Major Opposition to a Huge Powerline

Wisconsin Update: Major Opposition to a Huge Powerline

by Charlie Luthin, Wisconsin Wetland Association

Controversial Powerline Proposed Through Northwest Wisconsin

There is major opposition to a huge powerline planned for northern Wisconsin that has potential to cause substantial damage to forests, wetlands and waterways and negative impacts to private properties and their values.

Two utilities – Wisconsin Public Service Corporation and Minnesota Power, Co.— are joint applicants proposing to build a very large capacity transmission line from Duluth to Wausau. The project is referred to also as the Arrowhead-Weston project since it would connect the Arrowhead Substation, north of Duluth, with the Weston Power Plant, south of Wausau. The line is proposed to carry 345 kilovolts (kV) and act as a connector between the western and eastern power grids in the United States. Currently there is one line from the Eau Claire area to Weston that achieves this connection and the utilities claim that “reliability” of the system is questionable and needs to be improved.

The state’s utilities worked together to study “reliability” issues and the culmination of their work was a report that proposed Arrowhead-Weston as the selected alternative. That report, known as the WRAO (Wisconsin Reliability Assessment Organization) study, looked at cost and engineering information, but provided very little environmental impact assessment.

In November 1999, the application was delivered to the state agency in charge of reviewing and approving utility projects, the Public Service Commission (PSC). PSC staff were given a very short timeline to complete a Draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), for a project that many people agree is one of the most complex ever reviewed by that agency. A Draft EIS was issued for public comment in late May 2000, public comments were received, and a Final EIS was released in October. Together with several public hearings to be held in December around the state, there will also be a formal technical hearing process in January that will generate the record upon which the Commission (a 3-person panel of Thompson appointees) will make a final decision.

The applicants would like to build a large power line from Duluth southeast to Ladysmith, then west to Tripoli, then south to Owen and then east to Weston. The line would be 100-135 foot tall “H” steel structures, spaced every 800 feet and requiring a cleared right-of-way that would be around 150 feet wide. While some of the proposed route would follow highways and railroad lines, there would still need to be significant clearing of forested areas, wetlands, etc. The project would necessitate crossing of many streams, including the Namakagon River, a federal Wild and Scenic River. The project has potential for forest fragmentation and great impact to recreation and wildlife habitat.

The EIS explained that this project is not the only alternative to address reliability issues in the state. Not only has there not been much of an analysis of alternative transmission line routes, but there has not been much analysis of alternative to big transmission lines like new power plants, localized power sources, and conservation. The EIS admits this shortcoming but does not explain when and how such decisions will be addressed. As far as transmission routes, the EIS looked at five other routes and a simple environmental analysis revealed that the proposed Arrowhead project was the worst.

This is a complex proposal that this brief explanation cannot do justice. For more information, you should visit the website for SOUL (Save Our Unique Lands), the main opposition group at www.wakeupwisconsin.com. It may be helpful to visit the applicant’s website at www.powerupwisconsin.com. Finally, the PSC has excellent information, including a copy of maps and the Draft and Final EIS at www.psc.wi.us.

DNR Issues Guidance Authorizing Ditch Fills for Wetland Restoration

A major impediment to the quality restoration of wetlands in Wisconsin has been removed effective December 1, 2000. The Department of Natural Resources has issued new guidance that allows for drainage ditches to be filled for restoration projects. Previously, ditches constructed to drain wetlands—even though there was no original stream history—were considered as navigable waterways under Chapter 30 of Wisconsin statutes, and therefore permits were generally not issued for their filling. The new guidance recognizes that the restoration of site hydrology to historic conditions is an important goal that should be encouraged, not penalized. The most innovative wetland restoration techniques now include ditch filling in order to restore the original hydrology to the previously drained site. In some cases where a stream was historically channelized to create a ditch, wetland restorationists attempt to recreate the meanders of the original stream bed. Stream reconstruction projects would also be allowed, if the project is in compliance with all other state statutes.

“Ephemeral Wetlands” Focus of Wetland Scientists Forum

Wisconsin Wetlands Association (WWA) recently held its sixth statewide wetland scientists forum at the Milwaukee Public Library (November 3). Over 120 individuals from a two-state area participated in the day-long event. This year’s forum, “Ephemeral Wetlands…Here Today, Gone Tomorrow?” featured speakers on crustacea, invertebrates, and herptiles, as well as presentations on ephemeral wetland delineation, protection and restoration. Abstracts of the talks are available from WWA: wetlands@execpc.com or (608) 250-9971.


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Images courtesy of Steven Huyser-Honig,
West Grand Boulevard Collaborative, & Yellow Dog Watershed Preserve.