Are we are at “acceptance” yet?
In the long legal and philosophical battle over the Okanogan County Public Utility District’s proposed new powerline from Pateros to Twisp, the remaining option seems to be “get used to it.” The Washington Supreme Court’s recent decision that the utility has the authority to condemn state land to build the powerline doesn’t leave much room to maneuver, and the PUD is determined to act as quickly as possible to start construction on the line it’s been waiting a long time to build.
“Gloat” might too strong a word, but the PUD seemed more than a little indignant about having to endure the whole thing when it remarked on the court’s decision. Hard to be an entirely gracious winner after more than a dozen years of litigation and construction delays, I suppose.
Absent disagreement over where a new line should go, the need is evident. The PUD’s existing, nearly 70-year-old line over Loup Loup Pass was put out of commission for eight days last summer by the Carlton Complex Fire. That crippling outage drove home to many full-time and part-time residents the need for a second power source — this one via a 28-mile route up the Methow Valley — even conceding that such a line might have also been impacted by last summer’s fire.
It wasn’t so much the idea of a second line but the proposed placement of it that generated resistance from both the state Department of Natural Resources, which owns about a dozen acres that the line will pass through, and Conservation Northwest, an intervener in the lawsuit.
The basic legal question, which pitted the DNR against the PUD, was whether the utility has the authority to condemn state land that is currently generating money from other uses such as grazing. Yes it does, the Supreme Court said. Conservation Northwest argued that the line will damage habitat and cause other environmental harm. Not a determining issue, the Supreme Court said, although one justice dissented from that view.
But it’s instructive to remember that the Supreme Court also had a role in the strung-out process when it unanimously instructed then-Attorney General Rob McKenna that he was indeed required to represent the DNR in the case. McKenna, who was preparing for a gubernatorial campaign at the time, had declined to represent the state — a move that many political observers interpreted as overtly intended to draw conservative voters to McKenna’s candidacy. If the PUD wants to assign blame for the delays, some of it should go to McKenna, who slowed the whole thing down by not doing his job.
There has long been active resistance to the PUD’s plan in the valley, but I suspect that many people here are glad to see the issue settled in the utility’s favor. David Gottula, general manager of the Okanogan County Electric Cooperative, has been publically advocating for the second line and lobbying for it aggressively. He’s made some people unhappy with that stance, but says unapologetically that he is acting on behalf of his co-op members, who also rely on the Loup Loup line. At the same time, Gottula, an avid hiker and backpacker, is hardly anti-environmental.
The DNR, which comes under criticism from all over the political spectrum for some of its policies and practices, fought the good fight from the perspective of protecting state land and the revenues derived from it. Conservation Northwest raised questions that had to be raised. Now the Supreme Court has ruled, and in our system that pretty much settles the issue. If that is what passes for “acceptance,” then at least it’s a better emotion to embrace than lingering acrimony.