Agreement helps trees, power lines coexist


Issue Date: November 11, 2015
By Steve Adler
Walnut grower Joe Turkovich of Winters stands before a block of his trees that have been trimmed lower to provide clearance for electrical transmission lines passing directly over the orchard.
Photo/Steve Adler
Mat Conant, who grows walnuts in Sutter County, has been keeping his trees pruned low for several years to provide clearance from overhead transmission lines.
Photo/Steve Adler

In a model agreement aimed at allowing farmers to grow crops successfully under electrical power lines, the California Farm Bureau Federation has reached a resolution with the Western Area Power Administration that will permit orchard trees to be planted and maintained under and near the lines, under specified conditions.

The model will serve as a template for revisions to existing agreements between WAPA and landowners when there are new plantings, said Karen Norene Mills, CFBF associate counsel and director of public utilities. She said the agreement sets out the parameters for coexistence of trees and transmission lines, including how to identify appropriate species and varieties, as well as specifics about the clearances required.

"Did we work out something that is perfect? No. But it does allow everyone to move forward with some certainty about what the expectations are," Mills said.

WAPA transmission lines span hundreds of miles through most of Northern California and some parts of the Central Valley. The agreement between WAPA and CFBF relates to future plantings of trees under and around power lines. Current orchards will continue to follow guidelines that are already in place and are modeled after state and federal standards.

Joe Turkovich, a walnut and prune grower from Winters, has orchards that grow directly below WAPA transmission lines. He and fellow growers in Sutter County, who found themselves in a similar situation, contributed insight into development of the resolution.

"It was WAPA's preference to pay us to remove all of our trees from under the power lines," Turkovich said. "We declined to accept the offer because we felt that not having the opportunity to come back in the future to plant orchards was not in our best interest."

Removing the trees, he said, "would have left a huge, gaping hole in the middle of our orchards, creating an invitation for people to trespass, dump trash and so on. We would have had problems maintaining the land under those lines because it wasn't being farmed. We would have had rodents, weed-control issues, and all of the burden would have been put on us to maintain it."

The agreement allows farmers to plant new trees under the power lines with certain specifications, such as planting varieties and rootstocks that produce trees that do not grow as tall. This provision was one of the primary factors that growers were adamant to have included, he said.

Sutter County walnut grower Mat Conant, who has a block of walnuts located under power lines, was also heavily involved in the discussions. He said conflicts between trees and power lines have been going on in his area for 10 years or more, and that farmers cannot afford to lose total production from a large part of their orchards.

"From what I read, the resolution sounds doable. We always wanted to work with them," Conant said. "The only reason we came up with a workable resolution that we can all live with is that both sides were willing to compromise for the good of the whole."

Mills credited the lands team leader at WAPA, Steve Webber, with helping to establish a "constructive approach" to reaching the solutions reflected in the agreement. She noted that WAPA also recognized that transmission lines are at different heights, so a uniform height requirement for trees didn't make sense.

The resolution states, in part, that "the intent of the parties is to allow crops that can be effectively managed through informed selection of species and varieties in order to minimize trimming necessary to meet clearance requirements for lines and that will allow adequate access for the (utility personnel) to safely maintain the transmission line."

The agreement also states that landowners may plant within the easement area "species and varieties of trees with low vigor and low stature acknowledged by the University of California to reflect management consistent with best practices for minimization of height and regrowth at maturity."

In addition, a landowner may replace dead or dying trees within the easement area, as long as the replacement trees meet the low vigor/low stature specifications.

CFBF President Paul Wenger, who grows walnuts in the Modesto area—including some beneath power lines—expressed appreciation for the willingness of WAPA officials to come up with a workable resolution.

In a letter to Webber, Wenger stated that WAPA's ability to help resolve issues related to the coexistence of orchards and transmission lines will prove effective in both the short and long terms.

"We recognize the importance of safety and reliability of the transmission lines," Wenger wrote, "but also believe the continued ability to appropriately utilize ground under and around the lines will facilitate the day-to-day safety of the infrastructure, through the regular oversight of landowners in the affected areas."

Wenger said the agreement could provide a template for power providers in other parts of the state to develop similar guidelines.

"It is my hope that we can do away with all of these confrontations between farmers and utility companies, and have a set of standards that everyone follows," he said. "The utility companies have the core things that they are liable for and we certainly don't want to see ourselves or our employees be harmed by those high-voltage lines, so we put our heads together to come up with a resolution that would take care of everyone's concerns."

(Steve Adler is associate editor of Ag Alert. He may be contacted at sadler@cfbf.com.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.