By Miriam Raftery
May 24, 2009 (Ramona)—San Diego Gas & Electric (SDG&E) wants to expand its right to trim or remove trees within 18 inches of power lines dramatically – increasing that range to 25 feet on either side of power lines. On Friday, the Mussey Grade Road Alliance, a citizens’ watchdog group, has filed an opening brief with the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) opposing SDG&E’s plan.
“Were a utility to trim according to the proposed SDG&E guidelines, affecting a swath roughly 50-feet wide, it would remove or damage approximately 5 acres per mile," the brief concludes. "Were this to be applied to the entire SDG&E network, an area of 40,000 acres could be potentially affected. While not all the SDG&E service area is within the area deemed high fire risk, it is clear that many thousands of acres of trees and vegetation would be affected by their tree removal program that are not affected now."
Such an expanded vegetation management project should trigger a California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) review, the group argues.
SDG&E argues that the tree trimming and removal is necessary to prevent future wildfires. SDG&E has admitted in documents with the CPUC that its lines have been responsible for starting 167 fires in the last five and a half years. The utility faces lawsuits from area residents, insurers and local governments for damage from the 2007 wildfires.
Mussey Grade Road Alliance is a citizens’ organization that has been committed to protecting the community from wildfire. Following recent fires, the group has also been involved in planting new trees in burned-out areas.
The Alliance brief, signed by spokesperson Diane Conklin and dated May 22, 2009, seeks establishment of a “reasonableness standard. It observes that “to our utter astonishment, SDG&E has proposed what is effectively a massive tree removal program that would devastate whole environments and viewsheds along our rural roads and private property throughout San Diego’s backcountry as well as in the entire SDG&E service area by cutting 50-foot swaths through thousands of miles of easements, with impacts affecting uncalculated thousands of acres.”
The Alliance observes that a vegetation management program of removing swaths of trees from the path of every conductor could include severe environmental damage including:
-severe habitat fragmentation from a 50-foot gap in trees over thousands of miles of
--unstudied changes to predator/prey relationships
--unknown changes in erosion
--changes in stream sedimentation
--impacts to threatened, endangered, and vulnerable species