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PG&E program aims to protect endangered species

In the 19th century, PG&E’s predecessor introduced electricity into Northern California. In the 20th century, PG&E unveiled nuclear power and conservation policies throughout its vast system.Today, in the 21st century, the giant utility is inaugurating a program to protect threatened and endangered species.

PG&E this week announced its new Operations & Maintenance Habitat Conservation Plan. It incorporates a regional approach — as opposed to making decisions on a project-by-project basis — in protecting wildlife while completing routine maintenance.

The plan is broken up into six regions, and work has already begun in the San Joaquin Valley region, which includes Merced County. It took seven years to develop and included a study of each region’s threatened plant and animal species.

The San Joaquin kit fox, vernal pool fairy shrimp, California red-legged frog and tiger salamander are particular species of concern in the Merced area, said Al Donner, assistant field supervisor for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which approved PG&E’s permit.

Fish and Wildlife considers the plan more effective in protecting wildlife because it covers entire landscapes instead of going piece by piece. “It’s a much more efficient and effective way to deal with endangered species issues,” he said.

And because it protects more space at a time, the plan not only takes endangered species into consideration, but can protect sensitive species not yet listed, Donner added.

Jennifer Zerwer, PG&E spokeswoman, said the new Habitat Conservation Plan will be in place for the next 30 years. In the past the company has had to apply for individual permits to determine the sensitivity of each wildlife habitat.

This process came before such routine work as inspections of infrastructure and vegetation clearance near power lines. “It affects long-term wildlife,” Zerwer said. “We’ve always taken that into consideration.”

But now the process is streamlined, which will allow PG&E to provide better service to its customers, she said. The permit obtained for the plan is valid for all routine operations and maintenance in the San Joaquin Valley.

This will prevent delays in maintaining customers’ power service. Meanwhile, the plan also considers the habitat needs of 23 animals and 42 plants in the area, including 31 species listed as threatened or endangered under the federal Endangered Species Act.

[TAIL_FL]Reporter Dhyana Levey can be reached at 209 385-2472 or dlevey@mercedsun-star.com[/TAIL_FL]

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