TAMPICO – Farmer Gerard Widolff uses paper plates to show the slices of his farm that a proposed transmission line could affect.
His fields 5 miles north of Tampico depend on center pivot irrigation systems, which are long watering arms that revolve around center wells.
If the towers go up as planned, they could interrupt the systems’ revolutions, removing acreage from irrigation. That could hurt Widolff’s plants any year, especially during a drought.
His case is not unusual.
Rock Island Clean Line, a subsidiary of Houston-based Clean Line Energy Partners, has proposed an east-west line across northern Illinois, ending near Morris. It would connect wind farms in Iowa, Minnesota, Nebraska and South Dakota with population centers in Chicago and to the east.
Running parallel to ComEd towers, the proposed power line would go through a part of Whiteside County chock full of center pivot irrigation systems. The soil is sandier, so water is needed to supplement rainfall. Many of the farmers contract with seed corn companies, which prefer irrigated acreage.
A satellite view of this area shows miles of fields with circles – evidence of the irrigation systems. The circles are greener than the corners of fields, which the irrigators don’t reach.
On a recent day, Widolff, 39, took a visitor into his two fields in his pickup truck. At one, which he leases from his father, Bill Widolff, he gets out his paper plates to show how a tower – depending on where it is placed – could affect the 140-acre farm.
The center pivot irrigation system now covers about 135 acres, missing a small sliver as the result of a ComEd tower put up in the 1960s.
In one scenario, Gerard Widolff expects the covered area to drop to 120 acres, which he shows with a slice taken out of a paper plate. In another instance, if a tower is built closer than the ComEd one, the acreage could fall to 100.
Clean Line plans to seek public utility status from the Illinois Commerce Commission. If it succeeds, it will have the right to condemn land for an easement to put up its line. As the Constitution requires, it must provide property owners with “just compensation.”
But the Widolffs said the loss will be much greater than the land needed for the 120- to 160-foot towers. They said they’ll see a big drop in income if much of their farm is taken out of irrigated production. Seed corn companies may shy away from entering contracts with them, they said.
With much acreage removed, farmers will lose out on their investments in pivot irrigation systems. Such equipment, including the well and power unit, can cost more than $100,000.
‘Disappointed’ in County Board
In July, the Whiteside County Board unanimously approved an agreement with Clean Line and a resolution in support of the $1.7 billion project.
As part of the contract, the company pledged to give the county $7,000 per mile of line per year, for 20 years.
Such payments were required in Iowa, the company told the county.
The Widolffs said they were disappointed the county didn’t do more research before voting on the issue.
Gerard Widolff said farmers should have gone to the County Board to explain their situation, but they had no idea the board planned to vote on the issue.
“The money should go to the landowners,” Gerard said.
“We are disappointed,” said Bill, 82. “The county saw it as free money.”
They and other farmers are protesting the project, putting up hundreds of “Block RICL” signs.
Company works to ‘minimize’ impact
The county has proposed three routes, which converge in some places. At least one route goes through southwestern Lee County.
Clean Line plans to file a route with the Illinois Commerce Commission soon, said Hans Detweiler, Clean Line’s director of development.
“People will be able to see where the route is,” he said. “We’re very aware of the potential for impacts to center pivot irrigators. We have worked hard to minimize that impact. We think we’ll show we’ve done a good job in dealing with these issues.”
Overall, Detweiler said, the project would benefit Illinois. All the power will end up near Morris. Whether it goes to Chicago or out of state, the additional electricity should help drive down state power prices, he said.
But that doesn’t change the fact that farmers with pivot irrigation systems will lose out, Gerard said.
“The right of way on paper looks like a fair amount,” he said, “but the project affects more than that, and it’s forever.”