Time for T-I-M-B-E-R

If a tree falls in Columbia, even if no one is around, the Water and Light Department will hear it.
Wednesday, March 17, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 9:23 a.m. CDT, Friday, July 18, 2008

It’s that time of year when scores of Columbia homeowners will gaze into their yards to find large orange trucks and tree-cutting crews clearing the right of way beneath power lines.

The city each spring contracts with Asplundh Tree Expert Co. in an effort to keep trees from growing out of control and into electrical lines. City Water and Light Department officials are becoming even more diligent about tree trimming because of a recent report from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission that said trees growing along power lines contributed significantly to the power outage on the East Coast last August.

Connie Kacprowicz, a spokeswoman with the department, said Columbia has had a tree-trimming program since an ice storm wreaked havoc on the city in March 1948. The storm dumped a thick layer of ice on tree branches, causing some to down nearby power lines. Some Columbia residents were without power for two weeks.

“Utilities need proper vegetation management, which we have had in place since 1948,” Kacprowicz said. “Tree-trimming is an important way of keeping the electrical system reliable. High winds and ice can bring down electrical, cable and phone lines. If people think about it whenever they’re planting their trees, they can avoid the problems.”

The city takes this problem so seriously that it spent a little more than $1 million last year to pay for the crews to trim and remove trees. The investment appears to be paying off.

“Last week we had winds of 50 mph, and we only had one outage,” said Gary Maiden, services superintendent for the department. “There would have been a lot of damage without the tree-trimming policy.”

Eric Bradshaw, the general foreman of Asplundh, said tree-trimming increases the reliability of utility service and safety to the public.

“Blinking lights during a storm could be a result of trees hitting lines,” he said.

Asplundh’s crews use a directional tree-trimming technique, which trains the trees to grow away from the power lines over time. The crews are on a cyclical plan through which they trim trees to alter the way they grow, then return three to four years later to trim them again.

Tree-cutting crews sometimes anger residents by intruding in their yards, but Bradshaw said he has received fewer customer complaints over the past four years. That’s because his company now notifies residents ahead of time by leaving cards on their doors.

“It includes an option of call before trimming,” Bradshaw said.

In another attempt to appease homeowners, the city implemented a Trade-a-Tree program, which replaces trees that are cut down. The replacement trees, provided by Superior Garden Center, are more ornamental and don’t reach the same heights as the original trees. They are delivered and planted at no cost to the homeowner. This program cost the city $31,677 last year.

Maiden said some homeowners complain but that generally no one wants his or her tree to be the cause of a neighborhood power outage.

“We’re just trying to keep the electricity on,” he said.

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