Hamilton Utilities' urban forestry program boosts safety, reliability

When Dave Bienemann joined Ohio's Hamilton Utilities at the start of 2016, the utility had a problem: trees all over the city were leaning on power lines, causing outages and saddling the utility with endless repairs.

Since becoming the city's municipal arborist a year and a half ago, Bienemann has spent many of his days in the field. When contacted for this article, he was on the way to check up on a 240-year-old storm damaged oak tree to make sure it was safe ahead of a fireworks-filled Independence Day weekend. Bienemann's days are spent answering calls, doing in-field consultations, and even serving as an erstwhile tree diagnostician and doctor.

Hamilton Utilities' $2-million-dollar urban forestry program is much more than a beautification project. Jim Logan, Hamilton's Acting Public Utilities Director, notes that effective tree clearing and planning strongly contributed to Hamilton Utilities earning a Diamond RP3 (Reliable Public Power Provider) designation from the American Public Power Association. The designation recognizes the utility for its reliability, safety, workforce development, and system improvement.

When he first came to Hamilton, said Bienemann, "we had tremendous issues with trees on wires and outages." His first step was to create a multifaceted, five-year urban forestry program, focusing on both maintaining and trimming the more than 13,000 trees in the Hamilton community, while also providing education and consultation to the public on tree planting. He has a strong background in this type of work; he has a degree in forestry and wildlife management, and is an ISA certified arborist. Prior to coming to Hamilton, he worked at Bowling Green Municipal Utilities, another Ohio public power utility, for 12 years.

"He really goes the extra mile to embrace all parts of his position," said Logan of Bienemann. "He really is one of the best arborists I've ever worked with.

Currently, Bienemann is working on implementing a 15-year tree planting initiative, which aims to expand the tree population by 300 per year. At the same time, Bienemann is working on removing nearly 2,000 dead trees, a preventative measure that bolsters safety and reliability for the city's above-ground power lines. Bienemann appreciates the support of the city administration, the mayor, the city council and Hamilton Utilities commitment to the urban forestry program.

The vegetation management aspect of the program involved a meticulous inventory of all of the city's trees. Public education and customer service were crucial to the program's success: Bienemann simplified the utility's customer service system, and made sure that all calls related to the city's trees go directly to him. He also holds regular educational seminars on tree selection, tree pruning, placement and insect & disease diagnosis.

The utility is focused on emphasizing on planting "the right tree in the right place" -- careful planning effectively negates the need to move or remove down trees years down the line. Many trees can start off small, but some species reach over 40 feet when fully grown, impacting infrastructure and power lines.

Hamilton also partners with the nearby Miami University of Ohio to support new projects and promote further research into the area's diverse plant life. The utility currently employs three summer interns. They come from the university's botany, biology, and environmental science departments and are working on a variety of projects aimed at diversifying Hamilton's (and Ohio's) tree portfolio.

For example, thanks to a grant from the American Chestnut Foundation, Bienemann's interns are working on planting a plot of 25 chestnut trees on the Riverside Natural Area that are more resistant to the devastating blight affecting the general chestnut tree population. The hope is that, in five to seven years, these new trees will produce seeds that can be used to foster blight-resistance among the wild chestnut tree population.

In addition to those efforts, the utility is supporting a large-scale plan to replace invasive tree species with local native oaks, sycamore, hackberry, Kentucky coffee trees and more. It also has an ongoing project to survey and record all open green spaces in city limits, in order to help the city and residents plan future tree-planting programs.

Hamilton has shown its long-term commitment to urban forestry management. It has been a Tree City USA community since 2005, a program sponsored by the Arbor Day foundation and aimed at making communities across the country greener. The Hamilton Advisory Tree Board was instrumental in starting the urban forestry program.

Hamilton was also a member of the American Public Power Association's Tree Power program, though the Association has since discontinued the program.

Through its urban forestry project, Hamilton's efforts are a reminder of what utilities large and small can do to not only serve and beautify their communities, but also bolster reliability in the process.