Newport Ave. dam future unclear
Apr 22, 2013
100-year-old dam not producing much power, may eventually be removed
By Scott Hammers
The Newport Avenue Dam could be one significant repair bill away from being shut down for good, according to a spokesman for the utility that operates the dam.
Now 100 years old, the dam brought Central Oregon its first electricity, creating Mirror Pond along the way. The dam’s future has been placed in the spotlight through a Bend Park & Recreation District-led process to determine what should be done about the silt that has been slowly filling Mirror Pond since it was last dredged in 1984.
PacifiCorp spokesman Bob Gravely said the dam can be compared to an older car a family might keep around as backup transportation.
“It is the second car — as long as you’re not rebuilding the engine, it’s worth your while to keep driving, but when the mechanic gives you a $3,000 bill for your car, it’s time to reconsider," he said. “That’s how we view the situation right now."
Gravely said he couldn’t say how much money PacifiCorp would be willing to put in to keeping the dam running if repairs became necessary.
For now, he said the company is following the local discussion of options for Mirror Pond while trying not to exert undue influence on the process.
“In general, I would say that right now it remains economical to operate for customers," Gravley said. “But, it is 100 years old, and we’re continuing to make sure it’s safe and all of that. ... It would be hard to see any kind of major capital investment being made that would allow it to continue being economical."
With a generation capacity of 1.1 megawatts, the Newport Avenue Dam is the smallest of the six hydroelectric power plants operated by PacifiCorp, providing just more than one-tenth of 1 percent of the total power potential of the company’s hydro system.
Because hydroelectric plants do not typically generate power all day, every day, capacity figures overstate their actual production. Power output is measured in megawatt hours (MWh), a calculation of the actual electricity generated reached by multiplying the capacity with the number of hours the turbines are turning. With consistent water supplies, a 1.1 MW facility like the Newport Avenue Dam running 24 hours a day, 365 days a year would produce 9,636 MWh of electricity.
Generation figures shared by the company indicate the Newport Avenue Dam produced 3,344 MWh in 2012 and 2,115 MWh in 2011, down from the long-term historical average of 4,106 MWh. Using the U.S. Department of Energy standard that places the average household’s annual electricity consumption at 11,280 kilowatts, the dam’s total output supplied power for 296 homes last year, and 188 the year before.
According to the Oregon Public Utility Commission, the average PacifiCorp residential customer pays 10.8 cents per kilowatt hour. At that rate, the Newport Avenue Dam would have generated an income of $228,420 for PacifiCorp in 2012, not counting any costs associated with transmission, administration or maintenance.
Steve Johnson, the manager of the Central Oregon Irrigation District, said those kinds of dollar figures suggest it wouldn’t take much for PacifiCorp to give up on the Newport Avenue Dam as a power source.
The irrigation district operates two hydroelectric generators of its own, one on a canal intake near Mt. Bachelor Village and one on its canal between Bend and Redmond that together generate roughly 10 times the power of the Newport Avenue Dam.
“It’s only real value now is, it creates Mirror Pond," Johnson said. “I think PacifiCorp is just gonna follow along with what the community does, but if the community wants that dam removed, the community is gonna pay for it. PacifiCorp ain’t gonna pay for that."
If PacifiCorp were to give up on generating power at the Newport Avenue Dam, it’s likely the dam would have to come down as well. The state permit under which the dam is operated gives PacifiCorp the right to impound the river for power generation — and, interestingly, debris removal and ice production — but not recreational purposes like creating a pond.
Jim Figurski, a consultant working with the park district to draw up plans for how to address the silt issue at Mirror Pond, said the Oregon Water Resources Department has assured him it wouldn’t rush dam removal were PacifiCorp to give up on power generation, but could be forced to act if a private citizen or group were to raise the issue.
Mary Grainey from the Oregon Water Resources Department’s hydroelectric division said PacifiCorp would have the option of selling or transferring its water rights — again, only for hydroelectric generation, debris removal or ice production — or the rights would revert back to the state.
Grainey said PacifiCorp would have up to five years to transfer its water rights to another user or the state. Alternatively, the company or another party that received the water rights through a transfer could appeal to the Water Resources Commission to create a recreational or aesthetic water right, Grainey said, adding such rights are typically only granted for smaller waterways on private property.
Figurski said he doesn’t think a push to create a recreational water right is likely to succeed.
“I think the recreational components in most places were secondary to flood control, irrigation, power generation," Figurski said. “To create a new water right, you would be starting from scratch and would be subject to all the new regulations."
If hydroelectric generation were to come to an end and the dam were somehow allowed to remain in place with a new water right, it’s likely state regulators would require the dam’s owner to address fish passage. Johnson estimated screens to keep fish from being sucked through the dam and a fish ladder for upstream travel could run $1 million to $2 million at the Newport Avenue Dam.
Were PacifiCorp to continue generating power but wish to make significant modifications to the dam, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission could require it be re-licensed — PacifiCorp was allowed to opt out of FERC licensing in 1996 — triggering the need to install fish passage and meet other modern regulatory requirements.
Gravely said that although he can’t be certain what would happen were FERC to require the dam be re-licensed, the costs associated with a pending license renewal have led to the removal of many older dams across the Northwest. Still, he said it’s hard to guess when PacifiCorp might decide operating the dam is more trouble than its worth.
“It’s 100 years old. We believe it’s much closer to the end of its viability than the beginning," he said.
‘There will be a reaction’
Figurski said he can understand why PacifiCorp is trying to avoid dominating the discussion over Mirror Pond, even if what becomes of the dam could alter Mirror Pond as much or more than any of the dredging or channel-building now under consideration.
“I think they’re being pretty conservative," he said. “Because they could obviously be driving this process, and say ‘We’re going to take the dam out; you guys do whatever.’"
On April 30, members of the Mirror Pond Management Board will see preliminary illustrations of various options for addressing the silt buildup in the pond. Figurski said the board will see a no-dam scenario, a scenario that preserves the traditional look of Mirror Pond, and a number of middle options that ideally could be implemented with or without the Newport Avenue Dam.
Figurski said one of the clearest messages he took from a questionnaire on Mirror Pond earlier this year was the public’s desire to find an approach that will enhance the area upstream of the dam, regardless of how long the dam remains — and ideally, won’t be completely undone if the dam is removed.
“I don’t think the idea is you wouldn’t have to do anything if the dam comes out, but how do you not lose everything you’ve done," he said. “If and when the dam goes away, there will be a reaction. Let’s minimize what we have to do at that point."
— Reporter: 541-383-0387, firstname.lastname@example.org