Imagine spending your work day, week after week, keeping your eyes open for the Coachella Valley fringe-toed lizard to make sure the federally endangered species remained safe.
That is what Tony Barranda did as the environmental coordinator during construction of one of Southern California Edison’s (SCE) upgrade projects known as Devers-Mirage in the Palm Springs area. The utility upgraded transmission lines serving the Coachella Valley to enhance reliability because of increased customer usage.
“Protection of endangered species like the Coachella Valley fringe-toed lizard is an important responsibility, and we believe protecting endangered species and their habitats is one of the key ways SCE benefits the environment and our customers in the communities we serve,” he said.
When we think of SCE employees out in the field working on transmission projects, we usually imagine giant bulldozers or the installation of power poles. But the utility has a full staff of scientists, including nine biologists, seven archaeologists and a host of other specialists ranging from a geologist to water quality experts.
David W. Kay, SCE principal manager of Project Environmental Management in Corporate Environmental Health & Safety, said the department was created in the 1970s after several federal and state laws were enacted, including the federal Clean Water Act, Clean Air Act and Endangered Species Act. California followed the federal government and created its own laws and regulations on similar issues.
“SCE has technical experts to help the company navigate through laws and regulations, whether it is for day-to-day work repairing equipment on a power pole or building a large capital project,” Kay said.
SCE has strict protocols for protecting endangered species, from birds to lizards and various kinds of plants. Each time the company plans to work in an area, members of the environmental team go out and evaluate all of the environmental resources. Mitigation plans are created and approved by regulators.
Anywhere from two to five licensed and trained monitors were on site during construction of that portion of the Devers-Mirage project, which was from October 2011 to August 2012. SCE scientists, as well as contract specialists, are often on site during construction to monitor the area for the protected species to ensure their safety.
In Palm Springs, the Coachella Valley fringe-toed lizard only lives in wind-blown sand dunes. They have almost webbed feet, which allows them to run quickly across the sand. They also can dig into the sand and bury themselves to hide from predators.
SCE was required to protect the habitat critical to the lizards’ survival and reproduction. A line that was replaced along Gene Autry Trail cut right through that habitat, so SCE had to protect the lizards from being harmed or killed during construction.
Workers installed a low fence made of plastic, about 12 inches high, so the lizards couldn’t cross the road or easily enter the construction work areas. Because high winds were routine in the area, construction crews consistently had to maintain and rebuild portions of the fence almost weekly.
Barranda said the project was completed this June and without harming any of the endangered lizards, which is very unusual.
“We had keen eyes, vigilant monitoring and great coordination among the project team and crews,” he said. “We’re very proud we maintained 100 percent safety and environmental compliance during the many months we worked on the project.”
SCE also was required to acquire conservation lands as a mitigation measure for the Devers-Mirage project, and it currently is acquiring 54 acres of critical habitat for the lizards and another 20 acres for a plant species called the Coachella Valley milk vetch.