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Schroeder wildlife preserve off the table in updated grid transformation proposal

An arial view of a wastewater treatment plant and abutting nature preserve
Bloomington-Normal Water Reclamation District
Bloomington-Normal Water Reclamation District's wastewater treatment plant near Heyworth (pictured) borders the Schroeder Wildlife Preserve. The plant would have been impacted by proposed routes for Ameren's grid transformation project, but was removed in an update released Monday.

A new route proposal for Ameren's grid transformation project avoids interrupting a nature preserve south of Bloomington. The St. Louis utility company will host its second open house Thursday in rural McLean County seeking public feedback about the latest proposal.

An earlier version had routes potentially cutting through the north or south ends of Kenneth Schroeder Wildlife Sanctuary. The southern route would have additionally competed with planned capital improvements at the wastewater treatment facility bordering the habitat. The plant, near Heyworth, is operated by the Bloomington-Normal Water Reclamation District that also maintains the preserve.

Illinois Wesleyan University biologist Given Harper was among those who expressed concern, citing the critical role the sanctuary plays to the bird population.

“This is an important migration stopover site, wintering site and also a breeding area for a lot of birds,” Harper said.

More than 200 bird species have been spotted in the sanctuary, according to ebird. Harper said the high percentage of row crop agriculture in McLean County makes the nature preserve even more important.

“For most birds, this is an ecological desert,” he said. “So, the Schroeder sanctuary really is an oasis for birds.”

The Central Illinois Grid Transformation Project is a $1.6 billion upgrade to central Illinois' energy grid affecting 13 counties. The project includes 380 miles of new or upgraded transmission lines across the state, including in Ford, McLean, Tazewell and Peoria counties, and construction of three new substations.

Ameren says 85% of the project involves adding a circuit to existing towers, or replacing wooden towers with modern materials. Ameren says the initiative, due to be completed and fully online by 2030, will lower costs and improve reliability in the region.

Public concern drove route update

The Illinois Commerce Commission regulates utility companies and requires them to offer two public feedback sessions around the proposed infrastructure project. The new route proposal is a direct response to concerns and feedback received in the first session, said Ameren.

“As we go through and we talk to the people that are local to the area, they can help us to zero in on sensitivities that are potentially most impactful,” said Ameren senior project manager Sam Morris.

The new proposal through McLean County suggests a route running north to the west of the nature preserve, then along its northern border in existing power line corridors.

A second round of in-person open houses take place this week in Peoria and McLean counties. Affected landowners and other stake holders also can submit feedback online.

A final route is expected to be announced by the end of the year with construction estimated to begin in 2026.

Once the plan is finalized, Ameren will recruit experts to advise on ways to reduce harm to wildlife. Modernized towers will be further apart; Ameren claims this will pose less of a threat to birds than the current structures.

“We will pull in all the subject matter experts and consultants we need to minimize impacts as much as possible,” said Jennifer Queen, an environmental scientist at Ameren.

The next open house gathering public comment is at 10:30 a.m. Thursday at the Dale Township building, 8017 East 1100 North Road in rural Bloomington. More information and access to a virtual engagement platform are available at ameren.com.

Lauren Warnecke is a reporter at WGLT. You can reach Lauren at lewarne@ilstu.edu.
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