An Open Letter to the Members of Dakota Energy Cooperative.
My name is Merl Bechen, and I’ve been a lineman for East River Electric Power Cooperative for over four decades. I wanted to share my personal thoughts on Dakota Energy Cooperative’s decision to file a lawsuit against East River Electric in an attempt to leave their co-op family. I wrote this letter so the member-owners know what their cooperative leadership is really doing and what the consequences might be.
I do not wish to make this about me or the family that Dakota Energy would be leaving. Yet, I have spent my whole career serving the entire membership and what it stands for. You will never find a more dedicated group of people than the employees at South Dakota’s electric cooperatives, including East River Electric and the knowledge of the system and the operation is second to none.
We have spent years building relationships with neighboring transmission groups which have assisted each other in times of need. This partnership offers us the ability to handle large disasters without having a workforce that’s bigger than needed or owning more equipment than we can afford. That’s just one of the ways we’re able to keep rates stable. We have built ties with vendors and constantly upgrade our disaster plans. We are conservative to the core – believe me, I know – I have worked here for almost 43 years.
During my nearly 43 years with East River I have served as a lineman and foreman in the Mitchell Outpost, not far from the Dakota Energy territory, and have responded to many outages that have impacted Dakota Energy members. I have known all the men who have been on the line crews for East River that have served Ree Electric, Beadle Electric and now Dakota Energy since the cooperatives banded together to create East River Electric. Over the years we have maintained the system that serves your co-op with the highest amount of dedication as anyone in the business. The line crews and substation crews are backed up by a core group of professionals that support us and give us resources to keep your lights on.
My earliest memories with your co-op was the Halloween storm of 1979. I was a much younger man when this ice storm took down 5 poles on the Gann Valley line that night and the next morning we worked through the day to remove ice from the lines. Poles began to break along the transmission line route called the Ames Tap in Dakota Energy’s area and we lost most of the structures from the substation all the way to Fort Thompson. For three days we skidded on ice putting up structures. The conditions were unbelievable. We went from cold weather to muddy clay conditions when the weather warmed. Yet with field and pasture conditions totally out of control for the equipment we owned at this time, we still managed to rebuild 20 miles of transmission line in 12 days.
Throughout my four decades working in this area, we have assisted or have filled in to support first the Huron crew, and then the Miller crew. I have assisted on many outages in your area, but the Wolsey Tap probably sticks out the most because for some reason the weather in this area sometimes gets a bit out of hand. One particular night, a winter storm took the Wolsey transmission line out and we were sent to assist the Huron crew. We made it as far as Highway 281 and 34. Road conditions turned to ice and visibility was down to zero. We walked in front of the truck when the visibility got so bad we could barely keep the truck on the road so we could get the line back on. That’s the dedication employees from your local wholesale power supplier, East River Electric, show when the chips are down and we need to get the lights back on.
Another winter night, we patrolled this same area looking for the cause of an outage and ran the snowmobile into the end of a stock dam. Wet, cold and scared that the snowmobile would not keep running, we finally made it back to the truck. We had found a burnt down line which we repaired, restoring power to a large area. That’s just another example of the dedication to the job that was engrained in me and the other linemen early on.
In the 90’s, we were tasked with helping build a two-way feed into Dakota Beef. The timeline was short and crews were strapped. We built the line on time. Dakota Beef burnt down before it ever opened. Not a kilowatt of energy ever served the plant. The co-op family chose to split up the cost across the entire East River membership so Beadle Electric Co-op would not have to be burdened with the cost and be forced to increase their rates severely. When Ree and Beadle joined and became Dakota Energy, East River was there to support this integration with the two co-ops.
To date, the biggest storm to hit East River was the storm of 2005. We lost hundreds of transmission structures from Wagner to Yale – about a 20-mile-wide strip east to west. As the storm subsided and damage was assessed, crews were brought in to assist rebuilding the storm damage. With as much damage as the transmission system had suffered and with the help of our neighboring transmission cooperatives, we restored power to all of our substations within 10 days. This was no small feat when you consider the magnitude and the territory that was damaged.
I have noted the above examples as an illustration to some of the dedication and professionalism that we as a co-op family bring to your co-op from a lineman’s standpoint. No matter how large or how small our members are, as a member we share a common bond. Our dedication to you, our members will never change as a member of the East River family. I often consider our co-op family as links of a chain with each member only as strong as the next link. Please know that loyalty is not a forgotten art, but one that is ingrained in our innermost strength.
I’m disappointed that Dakota Energy’s leadership has attempted to go down a path that would leave our coop family, and go to a for-profit company like Guzman Energy. I think most members would rather keep their commitment to the other members and myself and my fellow linemen who have given their life’s work to better our co-op and community.
We do not just deliver lights – we deliver community. We’ve always been committed to making life better in our rural areas. Electric cooperatives were built by the people we serve, and we’ve never forgotten that. I can say with all sincerity that we are conservative to the bone, innovative beyond belief and committed to not just short-term goals, but goals that will affect all rural consumers for 30 to 40 years and beyond.
I encourage you to stay informed about what’s happening at your cooperative. You have a voice and I encourage you to use it. God Bless. It is my sincere wish that your cooperative continues to be a part of our co-op family.
Mitchell Area Maintenance Foreman
East River Electric Power Cooperative