Construction on a 3-mile stretch of a major high-voltage power line connecting Minnesota and Wisconsin stopped last month after conservationists learned the work could be interfering with nesting by protected bird species.
The $500 million, 345,000-volt power line project linking the La Crosse area and Rochester, Minn., crosses an area that includes the New Amsterdam Grasslands, which are owned and managed by the Mississippi Valley Conservancy.
The land, near Onalaska in the Town of Holland, was preserved with the help of nearly $1 million from a state stewardship fund because it contained 11 species of concern, including two species — Henslow's sparrow and Bell's vireo — that are classified as "threatened."
Abbie Church, conservation director for the conservancy, said she was driving in the area of the grasslands last month when she saw construction crews working and power poles already up.
The conservancy had worked to negotiate a restriction on construction activities during the nesting season when it agreed to an easement for the power line project. Nesting generally takes place from April through July.
"The unfortunate thing is that we worked so hard to ensure that the easement include provisions to account for the rare birds so they would not be disturbed," Church said Monday. "So it's very disappointing to see that a legal document such as that was just blatantly disregarded."
Xcel Energy project manager Grant Stevenson said construction activities in that area were stopped, and crews moved to a different area one day after receiving Church's phone call. By that time much of the work had been completed, with poles already installed. The conductors, or wires, still remain to be installed in that stretch.
A wildlife biologist hired by Xcel did monitoring in the area last week and determined that there were protected birds in the area.
Xcel had mistakenly provided construction crews with the wrong information about what kinds of activities were barred in the area, Stevenson said. Instead of telling contractors not to do any work during the birds' nesting season, the notification warned contractors against tree clearing only, he said.
The utility has checked its construction activities in Wisconsin and Minnesota and confirmed no other instances of work taking place in an area designated as being a concern for protected species, according to Stevenson.
"This is the first time in about 600 miles under construction or completed that we've had any kind of issue like this," said Tim Carlsgaard, an Xcel and CapX 2020 spokesman.
Xcel has asked the state Public Service Commission to approve its request to resume construction on a 2-mile stretch of the project, where no evidence of the protected birds was found.
The Wisconsin portion of the Rochester-La Crosse project is scheduled to be completed in September. That timeline could still be met, or it could be delayed, depending on what the DNR finds in follow-up checks of the 1-mile stretch of the line near the conservancy land.
The Rochester-La Crosse project is scheduled to be completed next year. At that time, construction of a line that starts at the same spot and crosses western Wisconsin to Middleton in Dane County is slated to begin. That project is a joint venture between Xcel and Pewaukee-based American Transmission Co.