When is it worth building in a refuge?

posted by Michael Schmidt on Friday, July 10, 2020

Power linesIn late May, the Iowa Utilities Board issued its final ruling approving construction of the Cardinal Hickory Creek electric transmission line in Iowa. The project would carry power generated in Iowa from outside Dubuque to the outskirts of Madison, Wisconsin, supplying communities there with clean energy. 

IEC applauded the decision, noting in earlier support of the project that the transmission line will encourage and enable more renewable energy development in Iowa by allowing our state to capitalize on and make more efficient use of our wind energy resources while making energy more affordable.

IEC learned about the transmission line project in about 2011. At that time we were aware that the line needed to cross the Mississippi River and that one of the river crossing options being considered went through the Upper Mississippi Wildlife and Fish Refuge. The Refuge includes 261 river miles, from near Wabasha, Minnesota, to Rock Island, Illinois. The area includes 240,000 acres of wetlands and numerous canoe trails. It provides habitat for fish, wildlife, and migratory birds. 

The line cannot avoid the Mississippi because the point of the line is to remedy a lack of transmission across the River. As then-IEC Energy Program Specialist Nathaniel Baer detailed in his testimony to the Iowa Utilities Board, IEC collaborated with member and partner organizations including Iowa Audubon, The Nature Conservancy, and others to provide input on avoiding environmentally sensitive areas. Nathaniel visited potential crossing points in person, seeing whether it made sense to support the project. 

Transmission lines require clearing tall vegetation in the right-of-way of the line, so a new crossing would mean the loss of trees and wildlife habitat. To minimize this impact, IEC and those involved concluded the best option was to site nearly all of the new line on an existing right-of-way for an existing line. One of the existing right-of-way options was a lower-voltage line crossing the river near Cassville, Wisconsin. Based on the draft Environmental Impact Statement, the Cassville route would use existing right-of-way for about 95 percent of its length, thus minimizing the environmental impact of the new line. 

In the Refuge itself, the Cassville route would move an existing line from a tree-filled peninsula (the “Stoneman” crossing) to a road and farm field (the “Nelson-Dewey” crossing) near a ferry landing. Moving the existing line will allow re-vegetation of the Stoneman crossing. The new line will also use the Nelson-Dewey crossing to minimize impacts. 

CHC Crossing

The result is the same number of river crossings and more contiguous habitat in the Refuge. Because of the benefit of contiguous habitat, the use of existing right-of-way, and the identified energy benefits – less expensive energy in Iowa and Wisconsin and reduced emissions from fossil fuel-burning power plants – IEC opted to support the project. We hope to see more projects that support Iowa’s clean energy infrastructure while protecting wildlife habitat. 

  1. clean energy
  2. renewable energy

About The Author

Michael Schmidt returned to Iowa and joined the Council in 2019. He most recently worked as a staff attorney for the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, where he focused on clean water and mining issues through enforcement, permitting, and rulemaking actions. He previously worked in the water pro ... read more