City Council backs SCE’s undergrounding plan to reduce wildfire risks in Laguna Beach

At a California Public Utilities Commission hearing in Long Beach last week, Laguna Beach City Councilmember Bob Whalen voiced strong support for Southern California Edison’s (SCE) Targeted Undergrounding Program (TUG) on behalf of the Laguna Beach City Council, emphasizing the program’s potential to reduce wildfire risks and enhance public safety in the area.

SCE’s TUG program is an initiative focused on reducing wildfire risks and enhancing safety by undergrounding electric distribution lines in high-risk areas. SCE is seeking funding for the program through its General Rate Case, which requires approval from the California Public Utilities Commission.

At the CPUC hearing, Whalen highlighted the importance of the plan as it relates to undergrounding utilities along Laguna Canyon Road (SR-133). This initiative could provide critical protection for the city, given that more than 85% of Laguna Beach lies within a CalFire “Very High Fire Hazard” Severity Zone. The undergrounding project aims to mitigate fire risks and protect a vital evacuation route for residents and more than six million annual visitors to the city.

“Undergrounding along SR-133 will directly mitigate the risk of wildfire disasters and protect a critical evacuation route,” Whalen stated during the CPUC hearing. “SR-133 is one of only three routes in and out of the city for emergency evacuation, so ensuring its safety is paramount.”

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Courtesy of City of Laguna Beach/Photo by Keli Daniels

Winning art in the 2023 City Photo Contest, “Sunrise Canyon” by Keli Daniels

The City of Laguna Beach has already invested in the project, paying $810,000 to SCE for engineering design and hiring a consultant for the necessary environmental documentation. Additionally, the city is conducting public outreach and pursuing grants for the undergrounding of electrical transmission lines not covered under the TUG program.

Whalen praised the TUG program as a wise use of ratepayer funds and was joined by fire chiefs and representatives from the Orange County Fire Association, as well as those from Los Angeles and Ventura counties, in urging the CPUC to approve funding for the program in SCE’s General Rate Case. These program advocates believe the program will strengthen fire safety in high-risk areas.

“Given the increasing frequency and severity of wildfires due to climate change, improving fire safety in electric utilities is crucial,” Whalen added.

SCE has already made strides in fire safety with covered conductors and other above-ground improvements. The expansion of the TUG program aims to further protect communities like Laguna Beach from wildfire threats. The General Rate Case is expected to be voted on by the CPUC in the first quarter of 2025 and it will be known at that time whether the TUG program has been funded.

In addition, the City of Laguna Beach is progressing with the “Laguna Canyon Road: Protect & Connect” project, focusing on enhancing safety, sustainability and managing congestion along the corridor.

Residents are invited to join the city for the upcoming Laguna Canyon Road: Protect & Connect Community Workshop on Tuesday, May 7 from 6-7:30 p.m. at the Susi Q Community Center (380 3rd St.). This meeting will provide an opportunity to share input on priorities, concerns and visions for the corridor.

Mayor Pro Tem Alex Rounaghi, who along with Whalen is the City Council-appointed Subcommittee for Laguna Canyon Road, strongly urges community members to attend the May 7 meeting and provide input on the project. “We strongly encourage residents, community groups and local businesses along Laguna Canyon Road to attend the meeting on May 7. We are looking for broad public input on the project and its potential features which will help us design the best project going forward,” said Rounaghi.

For more information on the project, visit the project website. The public is also encouraged to participate in an online survey available at SurveyMonkey.

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