Office of NEPA Policy and Compliance

NEPA and Negotiation Combine to Prevent Blackouts while Protecting a Valuable Watershed

September 2, 2003

You are here

By: Gene Lynard, NEPA Document Manager, Bonneville Power Administration

The intent and spirit of NEPA again helped Bonneville Power Administration (BPA), DOE’s power marketing organization in the Pacific Northwest, win support for a controversial 500-kilovolt transmission line through the City of Seattle’s Cedar River Municipal Watershed. The preferred alternative, outlined in the Kangley-Echo Lake Transmission Line Project Environmental Impact Statement (DOE/EIS-0317-S1, June 2003), will help BPA keep the lights on in the Northwest. 

Getting support for a new transmission line is never easy, but when your proposal threatens the drinking water of a major city and goes through pristine habitat for Federally-listed fish and wildlife, you had better be ready to deal. And BPA, through the NEPA process and lengthy negotiations with stakeholders, has successfully crafted a way for the environment to come out on top. 

“While we have disagreed over the best location of this proposed transmission line, the city understands the need to provide for power transmission reliability. We are pleased that we have been able to negotiate a proposed settlement with BPA that protects this critical source of our water supply and enhances our restoration activities.” – Mayor Greg Nickels, City of Seattle

BPA identified a critical need in 1999, i.e., a weakness in the high-voltage transmission system in the Seattle area that could lead to brownouts, or even blackouts, during extremely cold periods when demand for power is highest, and as early as the winter of 2002-2003. Without some kind of fix, the area could go dark when people need power for electric heat. Planners started brainstorming solutions, and the NEPA staff began identifying the issues and concerns. 

Potential Impacts to a Valuable Watershed

Seattle officials, tribal governments, national and local environmental groups, and some nearby residents opposed plans for the proposed transmission line when the Draft EIS was circulated for public review in the NEPA and Negotiation Combine to Prevent Blackouts while Protecting a Valuable Watershed summer of 2001. They thought any transmission line through the Cedar River Watershed, which supplies water to about 1.3 million people in the Puget Sound area, would harm water quality and fish and wildlife habitat. Just before the project was proposed, the City of Seattle had, through its own contentious process, finalized a Habitat Conservation Plan (HCP) under the Endangered Species Act for the northern spotted owl and marbled murrelet and for future returns of chinook salmon. The HCP allowed no commercial logging in the Watershed. BPA’s new transmission line would require cutting about 90 acres inside the Watershed. 

The approximately 90,000-acre Watershed provides water of such purity that it need not be filtered. If construction or other activities contaminated the water, it could leave Seattle responsible for a $100 million filtration system for its water supply in a time of tight municipal budgets. 

Comments Lead to Supplement With Additional Alternatives

All action alternatives analyzed in the Draft EIS crossed the Watershed because going around the Watershed meant demolishing homes. Though of concern to local residents, the HCP stakeholders made it clear that they wanted alternatives outside the Watershed analyzed along with a completely different solution – a non-transmission alternative, such as conservation. And they wanted mitigation. They wanted all this in a Supplemental Draft EIS before any decision was made.

BPA reopened scoping and prepared a Supplemental Draft EIS that evaluated four routes that went around the Watershed, new information about the preferred alternative, and a non-transmission alternative. The non-transmission alternative included incentives to reduce peak demand, energy efficiency, and alternate generation sources, which provided some benefits, but only delayed the need for additional transmission capacity for a few years. 

Negotiations and a Commitment to Mitigation Result in Broadly Accepted Project

BPA continued to meet with environmental groups and tribes to better understand their concerns throughout the process. BPA also met regularly with Seattle’s representatives to hammer out an agreement that would meet the City’s concerns in exchange for BPA receiving an easement across the Watershed. BPA offered a creative mitigation strategy: land purchases and a promise to not seek additional land across the Watershed again. 

“We applaud BPA’s efforts to mitigate the impacts from the project and will work with BPA to ensure the intent of these commitments is translated into real forest and water protection.” – Charlie Raines, Director, Sierra Club’s Cascade Checkerboard Project

BPA purchased lands adjacent to the Watershed that would be transferred to the City of Seattle (almost 600 acres) or sold with conservation easements attached (about 500 acres). This includes some 350 acres above the Raging River Basin, abutting the Watershed. These purchases compensated for the loss of about 90 acres of timber in the Watershed and drew praise from local environmental groups. 

BPA also identified several new mitigation measures and state-of-the-art design methods that would effectively minimize potential impacts of constructing the transmission line, such as flying preassembled tower sections and fallen timber in and out of the Watershed, and using non-toxic vegetable oil in all hydraulic equipment within the Watershed. 

Finally, in its agreement with the City of Seattle, BPA committed to (1) measures protecting the City against any threat to its water supply during project construction and for two years thereafter, (2) funds to the City to improve security and finance restoration within the Watershed, and (3) costs for timber removal.

A NEPA Success Story

Commentors spared no one’s feelings when they responded to the Draft EIS, and NEPA staff used those comments to prepare a successful Supplemental Draft EIS. Because BPA was responsive to stakeholders’ comments and concerns, there were far fewer comments on the Supplemental Draft EIS, and BPA could prepare an abbreviated Final EIS, saving both time and expense. BPA issued the Final EIS on June 20, 2003, less than six months after issuing the Supplemental Draft EIS. Construction began the day following the record of decision (68 FR 44532; July 29, 2003) and is scheduled to be complete in December 2003. 

How did BPA win the needed support? Through lengthy negotiation and an attempt to try and meet everyone’s needs.

The extent of stakeholders’ concern was far greater than realized when project planning began. The NEPA process made clear to the decisionmakers which critical resources were of most interest. BPA’s extra effort to address stakeholders’ concerns by developing compensatory mitigation measures through the NEPA process and negotiations resulted in a win-win-win outcome for BPA, the environmental community, and the users of electricity in the Puget Sound area – the ultimate beneficiaries of the project. 

For more infomation, contact Gene Lynard at gplynard@bpa.gov or 503-230-3790.