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South Mississippi Electric Power Association pairs new vegetation management technology with old-fashioned relationship building

Case Study: Changing Up Right-of-Way Maintenance

A firm handshake and a face-to-face conversation about an issue can make a real difference in today’s increasingly impersonalized world. When Wesley Graham of South Mississippi Electric Power Association (SMEPA) sits down with landowners on the tailgate of his truck and explains the utility company’s plan for controlling vegetation in the utility right-of-ways that cut through their property, even the most suspicious neighbor can become a supporter.

By taking the best of new vegetation management technology and pairing it with good old-fashioned relationship building and pragmatism, many of SMEPA’s 1,700 miles of right-of-way are being transformed from jumbled jungle to clear corridor, and at a fraction of the cost.


In the wake of Katrina

The 11 co-ops that purchase wholesale power from SMEPA operate more than 50,000 miles of distribution line stretching through the western and southern two-thirds of Mississippi. The area was hit hard by Hurricane Katrina, with many miles of line leveled by wind and debris in 2005. As in many disasters, what rose from the ashes was the best in people — especially those who labored tirelessly to get the infrastructure back online as fast as possible.

“A significant portion of our system was damaged during the hurricane,” said Kurt Brautigam, communication and member services director for SMEPA. “It was our responsibility to get service back up and running as fast as possible. We were one of the first utilities to begin getting our facilities back on line, restoring some service in just two days and energizing all delivery points in less than two weeks.”

Getting the power back online after Katrina was just the beginning of the challenge. Because many lines and right-of-ways needed to be rebuilt and recleared, SMEPA’s leadership agreed that updating the vegetation management plan was also a worthwhile consideration. The new plan would focus not only on functionality and cost, but would allow for additional emphasis on customer service and environmental stewardship.

In early 2006, SMEPA hired Graham to serve as right-of-way supervisor. Graham not only had a background in forestry and herbicide use, but he is a native of Mississippi. His connections to the communities the transmission company serves run deep, and have helped him build trust with residents impacted by maintenance activities.

“I’m the fourth generation in my family to work the land in Mississippi; my grandfather was a county forester here, and he had me up in the fire towers by the time I was six or seven,” said Graham. “I hope that my daughters get to enjoy all that this state has to offer in ecosystem diversity, wildlife and rural life that we have here, and I feel that managing right-of-ways responsibly is a way to ensure that.”


A solid foundation

Graham’s experience and knowledge of the area made him a perfect fit for designing the new program. He understood the wide variety of soil and vegetation types throughout the SMEPA service area, and a good deal about the invasive brush species threatening the region. Having received undergraduate and graduate degrees in agriculture extension and agronomy from Mississippi State University, having worked for the university, and having served as a member of the Lamar County Soil and Water Conservation Commission, Graham had all the tools he needed to build a tailored solution for right-of-way maintenance.

Before a plan could be developed, Graham knew he needed to get familiar with the right-of-ways. With his crew, Graham set out on foot to map the terrain, noting heavy brush and danger-tree infestations.

“My crew and I do the mapping the ‘old-fashioned’ way,” said Graham. “I have map books, but these guys have more than 50 years of combined experience between them. They are human maps, and their perspective is invaluable for a smaller operation like ours.”

What he found in his initial survey was a mix of different levels of brush and weed control. Some areas were well-maintained, providing easy access to poles and lines for maintenance. Others were less appealing.

“There were some lines out there that you could have filmed an episode of Tarzan on,” said Graham. “They were so thick with brush and trees that there was no way to inventory what all was there.”

Aside from being a risk for power reliability, the dense areas of vegetation virtually eliminated opportunities for wildlife to use the right-of-way areas. Cleared of trees and brush, the right-of-ways could serve as corridors and nesting areas for wild turkeys, whitetail deer, songbirds, small mammals and even endangered species like the gopher tortoise.


Building the solution

To get the lines cleared for wildlife and to keep the power flowing, the SMEPA team had to battle dense stands of Chinese privet, yaupon holly tree, wax myrtle, as well as hardwoods like sweetgum, post oak and Chinese tallow. Graham was also on the lookout for invasions of cogongrass, a scourge of the Southeast that overtakes other grass species and can create a major fire hazard.

“Fires fueled by cogongrass are some of the hottest burning fires we encounter in our ecosystem,” said Graham. “I want to protect our poles and lines, but also to avoid having our right-of-ways become vectors for cogongrass invasions of neighboring properties.”

After gathering all the data about danger trees, brush species and grasses, Graham created a four-year integrated vegetation management plan.

The plan calls for mowing the ROW using heavy equipment the first year and following up the second year with an initial herbicide application. The third year consists of scouting/monitoring for effectiveness with a second spray application the fourth year.

Graham selected QVM Certified Applicators Progressive Solutions and Southeast Woodland Services, Inc. to complete the herbicide applications.

“I had heard about other utilities using QVM Certified Applicators and getting great results,” said Graham. “There were a lot of fly-by-night companies that showed up in the area after Katrina, and I wanted to be sure I was getting the best, most principled operators for our lines.”


QVM in action

Coy Lambert, regional manager for Southeast Woodland Services is proud to work with SMEPA on lines in the Hattiesburg area because he shares Graham’s desire to protect southeastern ecosystems. His crews are able to design tank mixes for the specific sections of SMEPA right-of-ways, including riparian areas, and to bring the latest technology and top-notch skill to the field as they work.

“I know how important it is to Wes to go above and beyond the bare minimum required to keep the lines clear,” said Lambert. “We share his desire to protect the ecosystem and give wildlife a chance to come back into these areas, and are glad to help him meet that goal.”

Like all QVM Certified Applicators, Southeast Woodland Services provides its applicators with training above and beyond state licensing requirements, and insists on the highest quality treatments for its customers. One of the newest tools applicators are using to create efficiencies and reduce waste plastic going into landfills is returnable/refillable herbicide tanks.

“We use Aqumix returnable/refillable containers for all of our right-of-way work,” said Lambert. “Our herbicides come in a pre-mix solution, reducing time for crews to tank mix and eliminating container disposal. This is a big step forward in herbicide application, and we’re proud to demonstrate the advantages to customers like SMEPA.”


Sophisticated chemistry

Lambert uses a three-way mix of BASF Arsenal PowerLine herbicide for brush control, Garlon 4 herbicide for control of waxy species and glyphosate for the majority of the right-of-way control activities, but also adds Milestone herbicide for thistles and other invasive weeds. In riparian areas, Lambert uses BASF Habitat herbicide for brush control.

Crews of four or five walk the lines, treating brush and invasive plants based on the maps Graham and his team created. After initial treatments, crews revisit areas that require spot treatments and areas that were previously unreachable due to the density of stems before treatment or resprout.

“I like knowing that Southeast Woodlands and Progressive Solutions have sophisticated enough operations to change the tank mix based on the terrain and the vegetative mix,” said Graham. “Their crews are vigilant in assessing the situation and making sure they have the right chemistry mix to achieve good control.”

Graham also relies solely on branded herbicide products for right-of-way maintenance. While the initial price tag might be higher than generics, Graham appreciates knowing that the manufacturer is there to help with any problems that may arise.

“It’s important to know that a manufacturer is willing to provide support and advise us about their products,” he said. “I trust their experts and the QVM applicators that work with them.”


Value versus cost

Moving from a program that relied solely on mowing to one that integrates mowing with spray operations produced longer-term control of invasive brush and danger trees; what once needed to be mowed each year can now be treated far less often. This creates cost efficiencies that make a big difference for SMEPA.

“Our mowing program used to cost us around $175 per acre, per season,” said Graham. “With the integrated program, we’re down to just $60 per acre, per season for the initial application, even when we consider that we’re using only branded products and QVM Certified Applicators.”

The original bid that went out when the SMEPA integrated program first launched left room for applicators that used generic products. But the results achieved by Southeast Woodland Services and Progressive Solutions left little doubt that an investment in name brands was well worth it. Because of the success of the program, Graham expects to reduce his budgets yet again, cutting out reclearing work and focusing on maintaining the healthy right-of-ways.

“These guys get stem counts down at least by half in one season, and it’s always solid work,” said Graham. “I now specify that applicators have to be QVM Certified and must use branded products on my right-of-ways, because I will not accept less than the best value for my dollar, which Progressive and Southeast Woodland Services have shown us in the past few years.”


Nature returns

As brush is beaten back and grassland returns, the wildlife is also coming back to the SMEPA right-of-ways. Nature lovers now spot wild turkey, quail, deer and other birds and animals throughout the treated area, using it as a corridor for travel or for nesting and forage. Native grasses have brought pollinators back to the area as well.

“When I see wildlife in a right-of-way I treated, that’s a great feeling,” said Lambert. “It reminds me of what these programs can do: they can protect the power supply and the environment at the same time.”

Graham is working with the U.S. Forest Service to restore habitat for specific species, including the endangered gopher tortoise. Reducing the amount of mowing in these sensitive areas reduces the risk to the endangered species – both plant and animal – while also reducing soil disturbance that can lead to erosion or compaction. By minimizing risk, an environment is created that promotes the re-establishment of native species.


Connecting with the community

The biggest impact for Graham has been the positive relationships with landowners he has built as the vegetation management program sprang to life.

Since herbicide use was relatively new to the SMEPA program, Graham made sure that the residents with property impacted by its use on transmission lines understood the value of the program and all of the safety measures that were put in place. This has meant spending the time talking with residents, listening to their concerns and showing them the results the new program is getting.

“We’ve had some folks who were adamantly against spraying before I had a chance to talk with them about the overall program, but most of them changed their minds when they had the facts in front of them,” said Graham. “Some of them have even asked us to extend our treatments beyond the right-of-way to help control invasives like cogongrass on their land.”

Although Graham cannot treat land for citizens in the area, he does help them connect with resources to get the job done. He carries literature about the products being sprayed and the equipment being used with him as he visits with residents, and also shows them government and university research that supports the design of the program.

“Education is the key for reducing roadblocks, since the results speak for themselves,” said Graham. “I’m always happy to meet with landowners and make sure they understand that SMEPA is a good neighbor, and that we’re making a positive change for the environment.”


Article provided by BASF Corporation.


Arsenal and Habitat are registered trademarks of BASF.

Garlon and Milestone are registered trademarks of Dow AgroSciences.

Aqumix is a registered trademark of Aqumix Inc.

PowerLine is a trademark of BASF.


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