LA CROSSE — State authorities have halted work on part of a high-voltage power line under construction between Alma and Holmen after contractors violated a no-work agreement designed to protect threatened bird species.
Contractors on the CapX2020 transmission line were not supposed to work near the New Amsterdam Grasslands during nesting season — roughly from mid-May to mid-August. But in late June, the chairman of the Mississippi Valley Conservancy noticed towers being erected by the 310-acre preserve along Highway 53 about 13 miles north of La Crosse.
“It was a mistake on our part. No doubt about it,” said Tim Carlsgaard, spokesman for the project, which is a joint venture of Xcel Energy and 10 other utilities. “It wasn’t intentional by any means.”
The conservancy, which purchased the grassland preserve in 2007 with a nearly $1 million grant from the Department of Natural Resources, alerted the DNR to the ongoing disturbance.
The state Public Service Commission last week directed project leader Xcel to halt construction on the segment and to consult with the DNR on the potential effects to endangered or threatened bird species.
A UW-La Crosse biologist surveyed the land last year and found two threatened species: the Bell’s vireo and Henslow’s sparrow. According to documents filed with the PSC, a July 2 survey confirmed the presence of protected bird species.
“If those birds are disturbed during nesting seasons, that’s not very good,” said Carol Abrahamzon, the conservancy’s executive director.
Carlsgaard said crews in the field rely on tablets for information about the 48.6-mile route. In the affected area, where foundations were poured as planned over the winter, the notes said only to avoid clearing trees, so the towers were erected, he said.
Xcel has requested permission to resume work south of the area, where it says the DNR determined there was no suitable bird habitat.
Meanwhile, work is suspended on eight poles near the grassland pending clearance from the DNR and PSC. Abrahamzon said the conservancy would prefer that work not resume until mid-August.
Carlsgaard says the work stoppage will not delay completion of the 345-kilovolt line, which is scheduled to be energized in September. He said crews will continue stringing line on other parts of the line.
A $500 million project linking the Twin Cities, Rochester and Holmen, CapX2020 is a partnership of 11 utilities that argue it is needed to upgrade the power grid and connect wind energy resources to eastern population centers. The Wisconsin portion was approved last year by the Public Service Commission at a cost of $211 million, to be paid by customers across the Midwest.
A similar transmission line known as Badger-Coulee, approved last month, will eventually connect the CapX line to Dane County at an estimated cost of $580 million