By Jim Wahl, Wahl Marketing Communications
Land and Water magazine, the magazine of natural resource
management and restoration
W. James Construction crews were originally tasked to provide
project-wide erosion control for the Sunrise Powerlink Project that
would connect the SDG&E substation in El Centro, California,
with their substation in Miramar, 120 miles of 500 & 230 kV
power lines would link San Diego to the Imperial Valley, which has
the highest concentration of renewable energy projects in
California. The route, through multiple climate zones, and over
rough, remote terrain, included 260 sites which were only
accessible by air. As W. James Construction got into the BMP
installation on the remote access sites, it made more sense for
Warren James and his crews to help the grading contractor with the
vegetation clearing as well as do the erosion control with one trip
in and out. Necessity, being the mother of invention, James and his
crews had to develop a way to rig Hydro-Mulchers® so that they
could be carried by helicopter to these remote sites. For
environmental reasons, nearly 7 percent of the construction was
performed by helicopters and the project logged more than 30,000
flight hours. A rigorous, 5-year long environmental review and
permitting process was required, and over 18 months of
"There are about 260 sites that are fly access only," recalls
James. "So the task of prepping the sites for the foundation and
erection crews turned out to be pretty complex. Our crew
consisted of an operator and three to four laborers. We would fly
out to the sites with hand tools in the helicopter and bench
locations on the site to set our other tools and equipment as the
sites were too steep to set our equipment. Then we would have our
fly boss, who was in the yard, get the helo in the air and send us
our picks. These consisted of our orange toolbox, water buffalo,
cargo net with waddles, and our chipper. We then cleared the tower
site and helo landing pad as they were separate. Once the veg
clearing was done, our crew would start installing BMPs as well as
any environmental exclusionary fencing required for the site. At
the same time, we would set up the Erickson Air-Crane to transport
either the skid steer or dozer to the site depending on how much
grading was necessary for the helo landing zone. So a finished site
consisted of a brushed, BMP'd and fenced tower location, as well as
a brushed, graded, BMP'd, and fenced helo landing zone. In the
forest on high fire risk days, we could only use hand tools so we
had to cut all vegetation by hand with loppers and handsaws and fly
the brush out to the yard to be chipped. We also had to maintain
the BMPs during construction so our crews were in these sites very
regularly due to the steepness of the terrain and the spoils from
the drilling activities. During the rainy season, we had a
helicopter tied up nearly full-time doing maintenance. So when
these sites needed seeding and stabilization to clear up the storm
water permits, they approached us."
James and his crews had rigging experience because they had
previously figured out how to rig their chippers and tools so that
it could be copter-carried to the remote sites. The sites contained
a lot of rock, therefore, mowing decks and masticators typically
would not work.
"We had good luck with Bowie machines," recalls James, "I
especially like the performance and reliability of their gear pumps
so we got two of the 300-gallon machines - the smallest ones they
offer. We could not afford to get a seeder flown out to a site and
break. This means unnecessary helicopter time we did not have due
to the demand for helo support on line building activities. We had
to be perfect the first time we went or we would not have met the
He took the Hydro-Mulchers® to the fabricator who had made all
of the rigging required to fly out the other materials. The
fabricator manufactured cages for the machines, and then James had
them rated and pull-tested to ensure that everything was approved
and safe before flying the equipment to the sites. Everything had
to be pull tested to 125% and stamped to be air worthy. They had to
factor max potential weight of the load with rigging, the added
G-force load while in motion and swing, then times that by 1.25 to
get the desired test load.
There were contractor appointed air bosses in each yard that
would check all stamps, certifications, and rigging tags to ensure
safety. James sent all employees through a rigorous "rigging"
training to be certified to hook up loads to the helicopter long
"This was the most critical part, as it is where human error
could occur," James recalls, "so special attention andrepetitive
trainings were common throughout the project."
Once the rigging procedures were established and crews thoroughly
trained, there was the helicopter availability issue to contend
"This was our next challenge," James muses, "an A-Star which is
the more readily available helicopter on the project could pick up
about 3200 lbs., give or take depending on elevation. An empty
Bowie seeder weighs around 2600 pounds with rigging. So when the
K-Max (which can lift around 5000) was not available we had to fly
our BFM, seeds, and two half full buffalos at 150 gallons each and
mix on site. This took a tremendous amount of time we didn't have,
but we understood the line building activities took priority over
us. On days we had an A-Star only, we could only do a site or two
due to long waits on materials and water."
James estimates that on 95% of the sites, the lines were not
energized. "When we came in initially, the lines were
de-energized so we would land the seeders right there (you can get
within 5 feet of a de-energized line)," said James. "We would land,
spray the tower site, and then have someone sign off on it before
rigging it up to fly off to the next site."
James and his crews repeated this task for about 200 of the sites.
The other 60 were either on solid rock or had grown back to 70% so
the permit could be closed without having to
With so many sites to seed and two non-negotiable deadlines to
meet, Warren James Construction purchased a total of 4 machines -
enough for 2 crews. To ensure productivity, they set up a series of
staging yards scattered along the project. At the staging yards,
the crews would fill a machine with seed, hydromulch, tackifier,
fertilizer, and water, and have it agitating. A helicopter
would pick up a fully loaded machine to deliver it to a jobsite and
bring back an empty seeder that would then be refilled. This
process would be repeated and seeders would be hopscotched from
site to site.
"We had nine yards scattered throughout the line," recalls
James, "they were strategically placed so we had minimal major road
crossings and could get to every site. We still needed a good
deal of traffic control to cross some roads and public use areas
which had to be coordinated between crew, helo and traffic control
The seed mix varied from section to section. For the
majority of the project, James used Profile Products'
Hydro-Blanket® at 2500 lbs. with a native seed mix per section. The
seed mixes could span anywhere from 10-30 tower sites and were
collected by S&S Seeds.
"We must have had 200 bags of seed we had to sort through and
stay up on as our locations changed every day," recollects James.
"If we had to change sections in a day, we had to do a full clean
of the seeders before we could move on to avoid cross contamination
of the seeds. On some sites in the desert, we used M-Binder with no
seed or BFM for stabilization only."
"There were two really important deadlines throughout the
project," recalls James. "We had to be out of the bighorn sheep
area by New Year's Eve and out of the Golden Eagle areas
a month later. As a result, all activities were occurring at
once in the same place. We would be hydromulching sites, and they
would be pulling wire over us."
"We accomplished from 1 to 5 sites a day," James continued. "The
linemen were using the same helicopters we were so when they were
stringing wire, or doing their dead-ending and clipping, we had to
sit tight. It took us about 3 ½ months to get it all done."
Weather, specifically fire threat levels, played into logistics
as well as the production time frame.
"If it was a high fire day, we had to stop by 1 o'clock,"
recalls James. "On an extreme fire day - which we encountered a lot
- we could not work at all." When that happened, in addition
to daily delays, there were logistical issues to contend with.
"If we were scheduled to seed forest sites and found out the
night before the fire level was an EV," said James, "we would have
to scramble early in the morning to load all tools and equipment on
our trailer and move to a new yard in order to stay
productive. As soon as the PAL level lowered, we would
mobilize back as the forest was priority."
"We would have materials stranded on certain sites," mused
James. "We had a lot of hurdles to overcome. It certainly was not
as simple as showing up to see how many sites you could get done in
When they were given the opportunity to work, however, James and
his crews were prepared. Utilizing high-tech and non-standard
methods like transporting Hydro-Mulchers® via helicopter - to
tried-and-true methods like manual labor for clearing, they
provided erosion control for remote sites, thus bringing solar
power from the desert to homes near Miramar, California. With 1/3
of all utilities slated to come from renewable resources,
hopefully, more solar projects will be built - if so James and his
crews are ready, willing, able - and now, experienced.