Have gophers been unfairly accused?

Utility blames gophers for damaging underground wires. Homeowner says it was the utility, which says homeowner must pay.

Steve Beck, 52, next to the temporary electric line that supplies power to his home in Dayton. The underground line was disconnected in January because of damage that Anoka Municipal Utility blamed on gophers. Beck thinks utility workers did it.

Photo: James Eli Shiffer, Star Tribune

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The gnawing teeth of unseen gophers could cost a Dayton couple $1,600, all because they get their electricity from a municipal power company.

Steve Beck's electrical woes began in January when he ran the microwave and his lights dimmed. Later, when his fiancée, Sheila Caron, ran the dryer in the basement, the rest of the house went dark.

A utility crew determined an underground cable providing power to the house was damaged in several places, so they rigged up a temporary line. Unfortunately for the homeowners, the news got worse. In a Feb. 24 letter, Anoka Municipal Utility informed Beck and Caron that they would have to pay to repair the cable by mid-April or have their power shut off. An electrician told them the job would probably cost about $1,600.

Beck and Caron are on the hook because the utility blames the damage on "gophers chewing on the wire in various places." Beck and his neighbor say they think the damage was caused by the utility itself, which did some construction work in the neighborhood in the past two years.

"I'm just upset about this whole ordeal because it's so asinine," said Beck, a 52-year-old carpenter.

Dan Voss, director of Anoka Municipal Utility, agreed the company could have caused the damage. He described the case against gophers as circumstantial. If further investigation shows construction workers nicked the cable, Anoka Municipal Utility would try to make some accommodation with the homeowner, Voss said.

Beck and Caron are learning a hard lesson -- that property owners who get their power from Anoka and many other municipal distributors have to pay for any problems with underground cables to their house. If the same wire arrived at their house from a pole, the utility would cover it. If Xcel Energy was the provider, that utility would cover it, buried or not.

Anoka officials said their customers are typically jolted when they discover the difference.

"They're really not aware that they own the electric service, unless they were to actually ask about it," Voss said. "Of course, no one is going to normally ask about it."

Twice before, Beck has lived in houses where the main electric line went bad. Once, an overhead wire rubbed raw by a tree was replaced by the utility. Another home had a buried cable that went bad, but Xcel Energy replaced it at no charge.

Xcel Energy's 300,000 customers with underground electric lines pay an extra $2 per month to cover the cost of any repairs or replacement of those lines, said Patti Nystuen, an Xcel spokeswoman.

The rules are different for the 350,000 electric customers who get their power from municipal utilities that aren't regulated by the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission. In Dayton alone, three electricity providers -- Xcel, Anoka Municipal Utility and Connexus -- serve different areas of the city.

Anoka Municipal Utility serves about 10,000 customers in Anoka and Hennepin counties. Underground residential cables break down about 20 to 30 times a year, Voss said.

If a probe shows the electricity is escaping in several places, that's the calling card of gophers, Voss said. The animals need to gnaw on something all the time, to keep their teeth from growing too long, and small-diameter electric lines are "the perfect size for them," Voss said. "They love it."

The absence of electrocuted gophers wouldn't rule out his theory, Voss said.

"They're usually smart enough,'' he said. "Once they start getting tingled, then they'll stop eating there."

Beck doesn't buy it. "Nobody's ever seen a gopher or a gopher mound in this neighborhood," he said.

  • UTILITIES DISPUTE RESOLUTION

    All electric utilities must abide by certain rules and statutes.

    Read those at tinyurl.com/yld93ft. State-regulated utilities are overseen by the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission. For help with a dispute, call 651-296-0406 or go to tinyurl.com/yzqpvyl. Municipal utilities are owned and regulated by customers. Complaints can be directed to the municipality's city hall. Rural electrical cooperatives are regulated by a member-elected board, who address complaints.

    To determine whether your utility is a state-regulated, municipal or cooperatively owned facility, go to tinyurl.com/ylxor6c.

    JANE FRIEDMANN
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