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Massive Power Project Stirring Up Sandhills Residents

By J.L. Schmidt
Statehouse Correspondent

They call it the R-Project and some Sandhills residents want to make it clear that the Nebraska Public Power District's proposed 345,000-volt transmission line from Sutherland to Thedford and then to Holt County is not "our" project.
Some weeks ago, after writing a column about Nebraska tourism, I was contacted by several ranchers who don't like the thought of tall steel towers and power lines mucking up the scenery. They dislike it about as much as they dislike the wind farms springing up in several locations.
They claim the R-Project between NPPD's Gerald Gentleman Station near Sutherland to a new substation to be sited adjacent to an existing NPPD facility east of Thedford is only the beginning. The T-Plan would attach to the R-Project with transmission lines east to Holt County that opponents claim would "cut the Sandhills in half from east to west."
The power company says the 225-mile-long line will help enhance operation of NPPD's electric transmission system, relieve congestion from existing lines within the transmission system, and provide additional opportunities for development of renewable energy projects. They also say they are satisfied that an exhaustive public involvement process - eight public hearings in November 2014 - and follow-up meetings with interested parties is sufficient.
The $363 million project was the brainchild of the Southwest Power Pool, a regional transmission organization. It grew from a needs assessment of the region for the next 10 years. The line across 11 counties will be an integral part of the network that serves Nebraska's bulk energy needs. The utility says 63 percent of the land easements have been let and 72 percent of the landowners have signed leases. The project is awaiting completion of a U.S. Fish and Wildlife hearing before construction bids are let.
NPPD says it wants to minimize impacts of the project to landowner's property and restore anything that is damaged.
That promise hasn't been enough to satisfy property owners like Dan Welch who filed suit to protect his Brush Creek Ranch near Thedford, which he started 30 years ago. He said it's fragile land, home to endangered species and easily damaged, causing blowouts where the wind scours the earth and leaves sandy holes behind.
Welch said 100 years ago they called this the great American desert. But cattlemen like his grandfather got the hills covered in grass and it has become some of the best cattle country in the world. He said he and his wife ranch using horses to avoid the damage that four-wheelers would cause. He said the Sandhills ecosystem can't withstand construction equipment and the ravages of such a project.
Welch filed a lawsuit saying that NPPD agreed it would not enter his property without first getting permission from a court. The utility said state law allows them to survey on private property without the owners' consent as long as certain conditions have been met. The utility needs the survey to identify section corners for easement proposals. In August 2016, a judge ruled in favor of the utility.
The Nebraska Power Review Board approved the project -- the largest ever proposed by NPPD - on a 5-0 vote in October 2014 over the objection of ranchers who organized themselves into a grassroots group called Save the Sandhills and presented a petition with nearly 1,600 signatures to the board.
Power Review Board executive director Tim Texel said the board has no say on what route a utility selects. It has statutory authority to approve or deny a project based on public convenience and necessity, economics and feasibility and unnecessary duplication.
NPPD President and Chief Operating Officer Tom Kent said if NPPD was not building the line, another utility or private company selected by the power pool would. “I would rather NPPD was doing it -- Nebraskans working with Nebraskans -- to ensure the project is completed in an environmentally responsible manner, respecting the uniqueness of the Sandhills and the people who live there,” he said.
It appears that's as good as it's going to get. Let's hope that Nebraskans working with Nebraskans can make a difference.