Minimizing Our Impacts to Natural Resources

Photo: Greg Warrick

As one of California’s largest land owners, PG&E has a long history of managing lands and waters in a responsible and environmentally sensitive manner. Today, PG&E owns approximately 160,000 acres throughout northern and central California. This includes more than 140,000 acres of pristine watershed lands that PG&E has committed to preserving in perpetuity.

As we upgrade and maintain gas and electric facilities to meet customer needs, we recognize the critical importance of protecting threatened and endangered species and their habitats. We have significant programs and partnerships in place to help us deliver safe and reliable service while protecting wildlife and other important natural resources.

An Innovative Strategy for Protecting Habitat and Species

Spanning northern and central California, PG&E’s service area is home to hundreds of plants and animals protected by the federal and state Endangered Species Acts (ESA). In the late 1990s, we began pursuing Habitat Conservation Plans (HCP) to avoid, minimize and mitigate impacts to these sensitive species.

Investing in Landscape Conservation

Click image to enlarge
PG&E strives to avoid and minimize impacts to habitats and species wherever possible. When impacts cannot be avoided, we work in partnership with local land trusts and land management organizations to compensate appropriately, as required by law (and our HCP permit). While this mitigation is required, doing so in concert with broader conservation goals is voluntary. Typically, our strategy is to invest in parcels that contribute to larger landscape conservation goals and benefit a broad set of species, rather than focusing on smaller, separate parcels.

The Center for Natural Lands Management procures, holds title to and manages the mitigation land that PG&E is required to provide under the HCP permit, working closely with PG&E and under the regulatory oversight of state and federal agencies. As part of the arrangement, PG&E established an endowment with the Center that produces a revenue stream that supports the costs of implementing a management plan in perpetuity for the lands.

This map shows areas where we have purchased mitigation credits or acquired land as part of our San Joaquin Valley Operations and Maintenance HCP, totaling nearly 420 acres.

The map also shows an additional area that we expect to add to our mitigation portfolio in 2011—Tivy Mountain East, a 24-acre site in Fresno County that contains habitat for the threatened Valley Elderberry Longhorn Beetle. The site is owned by the Sierra Foothill Conservancy and located adjacent to lands protected by the Bureau of Land Management. We expect to complete a conservation easement for the site in 2011, which will protect the land from commercial development or use.

Federal and state natural resource agencies approved PG&E’s first regional Operations and Maintenance HCP in 2007, issuing a 30-year permit covering our operations and maintenance activities and minor new construction in the San Joaquin Valley. Last year marked the third year of implementation for this HCP permit, which covers 23 wildlife and 42 plant species, many of which rely on portions of remaining habitat in the San Joaquin Valley.

During 2010, key activities to implement this HCP included conducting instructor-led and web-based training for more than 1,500 employees, performing biological surveys prior to beginning our work to assess how or to what extent our activities might impact any sensitive species in the area, monitoring our activities to ensure compliance with permit requirements and submitting an annual report on our efforts to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) and the California Department of Fish and Game (CDFG).

Last year, we also took important steps to enhance compliance with the permit requirements by increasing awareness among field personnel and strengthening data management systems and work procedures.

We are now developing two additional HCPs to cover all of our operation and maintenance and minor new construction beyond the San Joaquin Valley. When completed, the HCPs will allow PG&E to continue to access and maintain facilities in a timely and efficient manner, avoiding schedule delays associated with acquiring individual, project-by-project permits for threatened and endangered species. In addition, our programmatic HCPs provide greater benefit to the species they cover because under an HCP, habitat mitigation is done on a landscape, rather than parcel by parcel, basis.

We expect to submit a draft HCP to the USFWS and CDFG for the Bay Area region in 2011 that will encompass 38 wildlife and 58 plant species listed as sensitive under the federal and state ESAs over nine counties. We are also in the process of developing a “multi-region” HCP for five other regions within PG&E’s service area, ensuring a standard and consistent approach to species protection and mitigation. If approved by the state and federal wildlife agencies, these permits will allow PG&E to perform its normal and routine operation and maintenance activities while minimizing impacts to habitat and species.

While our work developing additional HCPs is underway, we continue to pursue targeted interim efforts. For example, we are working with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, USFWS and CDFG to complete an interim conservation strategy for the federal- and state-endangered giant garter snake in the Sacramento Valley.

Learn more about how we are implementing best management practices at construction sites to protect sensitive species.

Sustainably Managing Our Watershed Lands

PG&E’s land stewardship efforts range from sustainable forestry and fire prevention in company-owned forests to the permanent protection of more than 140,000 acres in collaboration with the Pacific Forest and Watershed Lands Stewardship Council.

Sustainable Forestry and Fire Prevention

Before (top) and after shots show the results of the wildfire fuel reduction project in Auburn.

PG&E has practiced sustainable forestry on our watershed lands for many years, with an emphasis on forest health and fire prevention. PG&E is actively working to create healthier forests across 52,000 acres of company-owned forest lands by removing overstocked and unhealthy trees susceptible to insect attacks, disease and wildfire.

Key elements of our sustainable forestry efforts include maintaining lands to prevent fires, engaging nearby communities in wildfire prevention programs, providing timely response to fires if they do occur and using seeds collected from our seed orchard for restoration of healthy, diverse and productive forests.

For example, last summer PG&E engaged in a wildfire fuel-reduction project targeting 105 acres adjacent to the Sierra foothill community of Auburn. The project marked the one-year anniversary of the Auburn 49 Fire that destroyed 63 homes, covered approximately 340 acres and impacted portions of PG&E properties adjacent to substations and hydroelectric facilities. In response to the fire, PG&E assessed the vegetation on approximately 1,000 acres of PG&E-owned land in the area; cleared out affected trees, bushes and shrubs; and seeded 15 acres with poppies, native grasses and lupine to help control erosion, increase native botanical diversity and combat the invasion of noxious weeds. We will conduct additional fuel reduction activities in upcoming years.

PG&E recovers seeds from healthy ponderosa pine trees on our land to reforest company lands affected by wildfires.

PG&E also continues to take other steps to plan ahead in case of a fire, including storing seeds for future forest restoration. Through a long-term collaboration with the North Sierra Tree Improvement Association (NSTIA), PG&E contributed genetic material collected from specially selected strong and healthy ponderosa pine trees on our lands for grafting into a NSTIA orchard. Since 1994, the orchard has yielded nearly 250 pounds of ponderosa pine seeds, or approximately enough seed to grow 1.25 million seedlings. To date, we have drawn from this inventory to reforest approximately 600 acres of PG&E lands affected by wildfires. Trees grown from the ponderosa pine seeds show improved growth, wood quality and pest resistance, among other qualities. These advantages will enable enhanced carbon capture and more resilient trees in the face of new pest outbreaks.

In total, PG&E completed ten forest harvest and improvement projects across more than 3,000 acres in 2010 to create a healthier environment for the remaining trees and the wildlife that inhabit the sites. In 2010, PG&E sold more than 13,000 tons of bone-dry wood chips from its timber harvest operations to facilities that generate renewable electricity from biomass.

Our Land Conservation Commitment

We continue to collaborate with the Pacific Forest and Watershed Lands Stewardship Council on our commitment to permanently protect more than 140,000 acres of PG&E-owned lands—encompassing some of California’s most beautiful forested landscapes.

The Stewardship Council was created in 2003 as part of the agreement with state regulators to settle PG&E’s bankruptcy. The independent non-profit organization oversees implementation of PG&E’s “Land Conservation Commitment,” which is part of the bankruptcy settlement. This oversight includes the development of the Land Conservation Plan which articulates the long-term management objectives for the watershed lands and a recommendation to PG&E of donees to receive interests in the lands.

Humbug Valley
Photo of Humbug Valley, a picturesque meadow located at 4,300 feet in Plumas County. Unique in its rich diversity of cultural and biological resources, this PG&E-owned property will be permanently protected through our collaboration with the Stewardship Council.

PG&E funds the Stewardship Council in the amount of $10 million annually for 10 years. PG&E holds one seat on the Council’s Board of Directors.

PG&E is donating conservation easements and/or ownership in the lands to public agencies or qualified conservation organizations to enhance or preserve numerous beneficial uses: natural habitat for wildlife, fish and plants; open space; sustainable forestry; agriculture; outdoor recreation by the public; and historical values.

In 2010, the Stewardship Council recommended that PG&E donate more than 6,700 acres of watershed lands to public agencies or qualified conservation organizations. In addition, they recommended donees for conservation easements on another 17,600 acres; PG&E will continue to hold title to these lands.

Click on the map below to see additional details on the recommendations. PG&E has initiated negotiations with these recommended donees and expects to begin completing the land transactions in 2011. Going forward, the Stewardship Council will recommend donees for the remaining acres.

Click image to see full map

Recommendations from the Stewardship Council in 2010

PG&E and the Stewardship Council also continue to connect disadvantaged kids with the outdoors through the Youth Investment Program. Since 2006, the Stewardship Council has awarded more than $10 million to more than 180 organizations—affecting the lives of about 225,000 youth in PG&E’s service area.

Through these grants, the Stewardship Council has supported projects that include:

  1. Investing in more than 25 community park projects across California to rebuild open space and outdoor play areas,
  2. Launching a pilot program to recognize teachers who have connected youth to the outdoors in exemplary ways and
  3. Hosting regional gatherings for outdoor education providers.

Habitat Mitigation and Restoration

PG&E carries out a variety of habitat mitigation and restoration activities to fulfill state and federal requirements and to support voluntary environmental initiatives. Last year, our efforts enhanced or restored more than 650 acres of habitat and nearly 14 miles of stream and river riparian vegetation.

Habitat Mitigation and Restoration

1 PG&E undertook these activities to meet various regulatory requirements, with the exception of 2.5 acres of company-owned property that PG&E voluntarily restored in 2009.

2 Updated to include 243 acres covered in a prescribed burn in 2009.

3 Additionally, under the Battle Creek Salmon and Steelhead Restoration Project, PG&E removed the Wildcat Diversion Dam in 2010, enhancing access for Chinook salmon and steelhead to two miles of North Fork Battle Creek.

Protecting Birds

Upgrades to the transmission line connecting Moss-Landing to the Soledad area have reduced risks for golden eagles and improved the reliability of service to customers.

More than 300 species of migratory birds live in northern and central California, either permanently or during semi-annual migration along the “Pacific Flyway.” Since utility poles are often the highest and most prominent points in the landscape, birds sometimes perch on the poles to hunt or rest. PG&E’s system includes nearly 160,000 miles of electric transmission and distribution power lines. When birds seek out these power lines for perching and other uses, they can be electrocuted, which, in turn, can cause electric outages and wildfires. Birds can also collide with power lines while in flight.

Under state and federal laws, PG&E has an important responsibility to protect birds. For this reason, PG&E created an Avian Protection Plan designed to protect migratory, threatened and endangered birds while improving safety and electric reliability for our customers.

In 2002, PG&E and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service entered into an agreement that required PG&E to implement various bird protection measures. When this agreement expired in 2007, we voluntarily adopted the Avian Protection Plan, one of the most comprehensive in the nation.

Since 2002, in compliance with the agreement, PG&E has retrofitted more than 18,600 existing utility poles and towers with “bird-safe” equipment (see chart below). We have also retrofitted more than 20,450 poles in areas that pose the highest risk to birds, based on where bird injuries, fatalities or bird-related power outages have occurred. All new poles and replacement poles in designated “Raptor Concentration Zones” are also built “bird-safe.”

Bird Protection Program (Bird-Safe Retrofits)

Last year, we continued to invest in infrastructure upgrades to provide more reliable service while at the same time reducing risks to birds. This included installing devices known as transmission tower bridge guards and insulator shields to improve reliability by reducing outages caused by bird waste on equipment. PG&E is also installing nest platforms on utility poles throughout our service area to protect large birds, such as ospreys. The platforms give birds safer locations on which to build their nests.

PG&E revitalized five artificial nesting areas to protect burrowing owls at our Weber Substation.

We have also continued to focus infrastructure investments in targeted areas. For example, during 2009 and 2010, we retrofitted an under-performing transmission circuit known as the Moss Landing-Salinas-Soledad line to improve system reliability while also helping reduce risks to golden eagles and other raptors.

We also take steps to protect birds at our facilities. This includes burrowing owls that can nest at our substation facilities. Last year, in an effort to draw the owls a safe distance away from electrical equipment, we enhanced five artificial nest sites at our Weber substation in Stockton. We removed vegetation blocking burrow entrances, cleared debris from inside the burrows and reconstructed collapsed entrances and tunnels. We will monitor the nest sites to see if owls make their homes in the burrows during the 2011 nesting season. We will also conduct surveys at substations that had nesting burrowing owls in the past.

As part of our ongoing efforts, in 2011, we plan to train 5,500 employees and contractors on how to comply with all federal and state bird protection laws and properly report and track all avian electrocutions or collisions—continuing the training program we developed in 2009. By providing clear guidance and showing employees examples of bird-safe poles and equipment, we are strengthening compliance and making our electric grid more sustainable.

Partnering on the Owl Safe Program

Owl boxes
Through the Owl Safe Program, PG&E is partnering with the Lodi-Woodbridge Winegrape Commission to encourage growers to install owl boxes as a sustainable farming practice.

Last year, PG&E partnered with the Lodi-Woodbridge Winegrape Commission to help grape growers in San Joaquin County keep birds safe around our power lines while maintaining sustainable farming practices.

In the past, some winegrape growers have attached owl boxes to PG&E’s electrical poles to attract barn owls, a natural predator for rodents. Unfortunately, if attached to utility poles, the boxes can create unintended problems: electrocution of the birds, outages and potential wildfires.

To address this challenge, PG&E helped create the Owl Safe Program to raise awareness in the farming community about the proper placement of owl boxes.

With a $25,000 charitable grant from PG&E, the pilot program provided funding for 120 stand-alone “nest boxes” to growers in Lodi, California. Mounted on dedicated poles, the sturdy plastic nest boxes provide a new, safe home for the owls. As an added incentive, the Lodi-Woodbridge Winegrape Commission gives its seal of approval to growers who abide by its “Lodi Rules” for sustainable farming, including using these owl boxes for natural pest control.

The pilot program is a great example of how PG&E’s community partnerships and investments can help address the needs of our customers while also supporting our business objectives. In 2011, we plan to continue funding the program.

Vegetation Management

PG&E removes or prunes approximately 1.5 million trees or brush each year along high-voltage overhead transmission and distribution lines to prevent trees from growing or falling into power lines. Approximately 300 trained contractor utility arborists and foresters patrol these lines, which are then pruned by 1,500 Cal OSHA line clearance-qualified contractors.

Trees that come into contact with wires can cause fires, which can pose a risk to the public and lead to power outages. PG&E is required by law to keep the lines clear. The North American Electric Reliability Corporation’s Standard FAC-003-1 applies to bulk transmission lines and is intended to prevent a large scale transmission outage, such as the 2003 blackout on the east coast that affected 50 million people across eight states and a Canadian province.

We perform this work while also taking steps to protect water and air quality, as well as endangered species and habitats. This includes training PG&E and contractor personnel on best practices when working in and around environmentally sensitive areas.

For example, PG&E is required under the federal Endangered Species Act to protect the Valley Elderberry Longhorn Beetle (VELB), which relies solely on elderberry shrubs for food, shelter and reproduction. These shrubs often grow within natural gas and electric rights-of-way and need to be removed to maintain minimum distances between vegetation and high-voltage power lines, as required by law. Through PG&E’s VELB Conservation Program, we are integrating compliance with line clearance and wildlife conservation laws.

To date, to compensate for impacts to beetle habitats from our tree trimming, we have permanently protected more than 975 acres of high-quality beetle habitat, working in partnership with groups such as The Nature Conservancy, Trust for Public Land and other organizations.


Twitter Facebook Next 100 Currents