Lou and Judy Lombardi's walnut orchard stretches half a mile from their house to the Tuolumne River.
On a clear day, they can gaze upon Sierra peaks far from this spot west of Waterford.
The Lombardis see something else looming, and they don't like it. Their farm lies along one of the possible routes for a transmission line project across much of Northern California.
"It's going to devalue the land," said Lou Lombardi, who has farmed there for 31 years. "No one is going to want to buy here because they will be looking at the lines."
The 600-mile project, involving towers probably 100 to 150 feet tall, has sparked opposition along potential corridors near Del Rio, Escalon, Riverbank, Oakdale and other communities.
It is being planned by a partnership that includes the Modesto and Turlock irrigation districts. They aim to meet increasing demand, guard against outages and tap potential sources of renewable energy in the northeast part of the state.
"It fits our long-term goal of providing reliable electricity for the district," said Casey Hashimoto, the TID's assistant general manager for engineering and operations.
"It's more interconnected pieces to be able to move power," said Allen Short, the MID's general manager.
Short is chairman this year of the partnership, the Transmission Agency of Northern California. Along with the MID and TID, the lines would serve the Sacramento Municipal Utility District, the federal hydropower system at New Melones Reservoir, and city-owned utilities in Santa Clara and Redding.
The project, expected to cost about $1.3 billion, could be built as early as 2014.
The MID likely would bear about a quarter of the cost. The TID's share has not been determined. Neither has committed to construction.
The planners have roughed out 1,000-foot-wide corridors for study, although only a fifth of that would be needed for the lines.
Critics worry about degraded scenery and hissing noises near their homes. Farmers have raised concerns that the lines would interfere with aerial pesticide spraying and that tall trees would have to be trimmed. Some people fear that electromagnetic fields from the wires could cause cancer.
"The point is it's blight," said Lia McKeon, whose century-old ranch house east of Riverbank is in one of the corridors. "It's ugly. It's noisy. It's dangerous."
Option has some near Del Rio
The upscale Del Rio community would have transmission lines just to the south under one of the options. They would reduce property values, interfere with satellite television and threaten geese that winter along the nearby Stanislaus River, resident Will Iffland said.
"It's an imposition that's never going away, ever," he said.
The Lombardis said the project could affect as many as 12 of their 104 acres of walnuts, including tower footings and limits on spraying. They would prefer that the route go through less valuable land to the east.
"I see the point in having to put the grid together," Judy Lombardi said. "I question their position that it has to go through prime ag land."
Iffland suggests that the partnership upgrade lines in established corridors instead. He said lines also could be buried, which would increase the construction costs but reduce maintenance needs.
Bill Jackson, a cattle rancher and nut grower between Oakdale and Waterford, said he already has Pacific Gas & Electric Co. transmission lines on his land and does not see why it was included in the new project. He, too, prefers upgrading existing lines.
"I just don't think they are looking at all the alternatives for making this cost-effective," Jackson said.
Some upgrades are part of the project, but most of it is new lines.
Short said this stage of the planning process is intended to get the public's concerns into the open. The planners will take the submitted comments, due May 31, and refine the routes and other design features over the next two years.
"Obviously, they'll pick the route with the least impact to the environment and farming operations," the TID's Hashimoto said.
Owners would be compensated for use of their land, at amounts to be negotiated. Hashimoto said acquiring the rights of way through condemnation would be "a last resort."
The tower design also has to be decided, MID spokeswoman Kate Hora said. The options include the lattice style, often called an "erector" set, and single shafts. Towers typically are 700 to 1,400 feet apart and have 400- to 2,000-square-foot bases.
Federal standards cited
Short and Hashimoto said the project is driven in part by new federal standards for assuring reliable electricity.
The districts also are under a state mandate to get at least 20 percent of their power from solar, wind and other renewable sources. The target could increase soon to 33 percent.
Short said solar arrays that could be installed within TID boundaries would not be enough to meet the need. Lassen County is seen as a prime source for solar, wind and geothermal systems, and new transmission lines are needed to move the power to customers, he said.
Short said underground lines would be much more expensive than overhead wires. And he said customers ultimately will benefit from having public utilities build the lines at a lower cost than if private utilities did it.
Over near Waterford, along the river that provided the MID and TID with their first power in the 1920s, the Lombardis keep watch on their walnut crop and on the transmission line project.
"We just want to be here and keep farming, and they're making it difficult," Judy Lombardi said.
Bee staff writer John Holland can be reached at email@example.com or 578-2385.