Fiber Construction Begins in Sandy Valley

Members one step closer to high-speed broadband

By Vern Hee

SANDY VALLEY, Nev. – The last remaining hurdle before fiber-optic cable could be hung on Valley Electric Power lines into Sandy Valley was cleared Jan. 8 during a meeting between officials from Valley and the Federal Bureau of Land Management.

While other members of Valley began broadband service in 2016, Sandy Valley member-owners have waited 19 months for the fiber-optic cable. The delay involved obtaining construction approvals to hang fiber on already existing power poles in sensitive areas containing protected species of plants and animals, including the desert tortoise, which is hibernating this time of year. BLM and VEA officials had to devise a plan to minimize harm to plants and animals as trucks and other equipment used to hang cable on the poles, traveled across the desert.

The final agreement was met with sighs of relief from Sandy Valley residents.

“I am the secretary for the County Advisory Council here in Sandy Valley, which is the town board, and we are so looking forward to more reliable Internet,” said Electra Smith. “I do everything online, and for the town board I have a small window in which to get the agendas of the meeting to the county. Recently our current Internet has been popping in and out, and that has happened more than once on the day that I had to send the agendas.”

To get fiber to Sandy Valley, VEA must hang cable on poles from Highway 160 through 12 miles of BLM land, said Kristin Mettke, VEA Executive Vice President of Engineering, during the construction meeting. “The work will be entirely aerial work with no underground cable, and there are very few times where we will have to leave the access road.”

Work began Jan. 8, the same day the agreements were signed, said Bear Merritt of Par Electric, the contractor that will be doing the work. The work was expected to continue through most of February with homes and businesses being connected toward the end of February or the beginning of March, said Kathie McKenna, Chief Operating Officer of VCA.

“We are thrilled for the people of Sandy Valley that the process of bring broadband to them can proceed,” said Kathie. “Broadband is a critical service for everyone, and we are grateful that the wait is finally over.”

Because there will be no underground cable and no grading in the desert, only minimal impact to the land was expected. Also, VCA will work on an existing access road that will minimize any disturbance to the environment.

Wendy Seley, BLM Realty Specialist, said that besides the hibernating tortoises, anything of historical significance found along the way, including prehistoric artifacts, would be on the “do not disturb” list.

Glen Church, the Project Manager for Biological & Environmental Consulting, a company contracted by VEA for the Sandy Valley project, outlined during the meeting how two field biologists would assist the VCA fiber team in navigating through the desert tortoise habitat.

It is illegal to touch, disturb, harass, harm or poach a desert tortoise.

“Fines could be upward of $50,000 for taking a tortoise from its habitat, and there could be as much as two years in prison,” Glen said.

Even though the tortoise is hibernating now, the BLM biologists will ride ATVs ahead of the construction vehicles as they install the cable and they will be steering the construction workers clear of any tortoises, their burrows and even vital plants that the tortoise feed on for survival.

“The biologists are there to make sure that no biologics are harmed or killed,” Glen says. “They will travel ahead of you and clear various areas as you go from pole to pole. They are out there to help you stay off all the biologics, making sure nothing is harmed or killed in any shape or form that could cause you a problem of being in noncompliance.”

In addition to the biologists, all VEA personnel and contractors on the jobsite have to go through desert tortoise training.