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Matthew Bilsbarrow: avoid, lessen or mitigate

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Photo of Matthew and wife on their wedding day.Name: Matthew Bilsbarrow, federal employee

Title: Environmental Protection Specialist

Location: Phoenix, Arizona

Region: Desert Southwest

When did you start working with WAPA? I joined 10 years ago, after seven years of reviewing WAPA's plans at the Arizona State Historic Preservation Office. What impressed me about the agency was its clear, well-or​ganized consultation letters, reasonably thorough consultation efforts and willingness to solve conflicts collaboratively. Of the 20-plus federal and state agencies that I advised, WAPA was the best.​

What is the most interesting thing you have worked on at WAPA? When WAPA needed to add a new 69-kilovolt yard at Coolidge Substation in Pinal County, Arizona, I got to work a challenging archaeological sampling problem. Archaeological sites are like icebergs in that the portion that you see above the surface is smaller than portion you can't see below. A 20-year-old survey of WAPA's property identified the presence of a prehistoric artifact scatter on the ground surface. The danger ahead was titanic. Ships that run into icebergs sink and people die, while poorly planned construction projects that run into archaeological sites face unexpected costs, delays or cancelation, a​nd long-dead human remains may appear.

Working with internal and external stakeholders, I developed a plan to examine a 1-percent sample across the entire parcel. The archaeologists hired by WAPA excavated a series of parallel, widely spaced, 5-foot-deep backhoe trenches and examined the sidewalls, literally looking below the surface. In some trenches, they saw evidence of a prehistoric village that was occupied in the years between 1100 and 1450, prehistoric irrigation canals and an unrelated 1914 canal. In one trench sidewall, they also observed a human burial, which WAPA respectfully and quickly recovered and transferred to the Gila River Indian Community. In most trenches, however, they saw nothing but dirt.

By connecting the finds in the sample trenches, I was able to extrapolate site boundaries and help WAPA's project manager and foreman select a location and design that minimized further impacts to the village site. Ultimately WAPA could not avoid the site completely and followed up with an archaeological data recovery excavation in a small area. Thankfully, no more human burials were disturbed.

What do you wish people understood about your job and the work you do? I call myself a planner to emphasize that when you're working with me, you're participating in planning.  My goal is to incorporate environmental stewardship values into WAPA's decision-making process alongside customer, engineering, fiscal and safety concerns. General Dwight Eisenhower said, "I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable." The best way for WAPA to keep the lights on in a rapidly changing industry is to continually improve its planning process, develop alternatives, involve stakeholders and think in terms of multiple outcomes. The public, which includes our customers, expects more from federal agencies than zero-sum solutions developed in smoke-filled rooms.

Tell us something about yourself we wouldn't find on your resume. My wife and I were married by a justice of the peace at La Posada Hotel in Winslow, Arizona. Renovating portions of this historic Mary Coulter-designed railroad hotel had been my wife's first architectural project in Arizona. The hotel owners graciously let us hold our ceremony in the iconic sunken garden. After she said, "You may kiss the bride," we walked down to Standin' on the Corner Park much to the amusement of bikers, shopkeepers and tourists.​

How is what you do tied to WAPA's mission? Every day, WAPA makes plans or implements plans to fulfill its mission. Every day, my fellow environmental planners and I contribute to planning so that WAPA's forces can get the job done. In some respects, we are seeking ALMs. In this case, ALM is an acronym for "avoid, lessen or mitigate." For example, we seek ways to avoid impacts to archaeological sites by asking transmission line designers to span them. We seek to lessen impacts to the Mojave desert tortoise by asking crews to check under parked vehicles prior to driving away. We seek to mitigate impacts to an active bird nest by having a permitted rehabilitation contractor remove it from the work area and raise the young until they can be released. In seeking ALMs, the order is also important, because avoidance or lessening is always cheaper and more beneficial to the public than mitigation. By planning for reasonable and cost-effective ALMs, WAPA's marketing and delivery services can be considered as clean, renewable and reliable as the hydropower itself.

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Page Last Updated: 3/6/2020 11:18 AM