Researchers at three national scientific laboratories have teamed up with state water experts, environmentalists and local irrigation officials to study how to increase hydropower generation in the region while still providing enough water for farmers, ranchers and fish.
The scientists want their efforts in the Deschutes River Basin — the Deschutes River, from the Pelton Round Butte dam complex south to the headwaters, and the Crooked River, along with their tributaries and canals — to serve as an example for other regions around the nation.
Instead of considering each hydropower project and its effects on fish and water flow separately, the study approaches them from a basinwide perspective. The resulting research could help speed up the approval processes.
Developers will be able to explore many potential sites in the basin at once and see the impacts they would cause up front, rather than dealing with them in the middle of the approval process.
In past decades, the major push and pull on rivers has concerned the desire to generate renewable energy from dams and the desire to protect waterways for fish. The Northwest's largest dams, built in the 1930s-70s, decimated fish runs.
Now researchers are identifying locations throughout the basin suitable for small
hydroelectric projects that would not impede fish.
Collaborating to spot opportunities for improving stream flows, generating power and ensuring water for irrigation districts across a river basin, rather than one location in it, can yield benefits for all involved parties, such as lowering analysis costs and forming partnerships among otherwise disparate groups, according to a report on the progress of the study, which was released in September 2011, halfway through the project.
Nearly every hydropower-related group imaginable is participating in the study, from the U.S. Department of Energy on down to the Central Oregon Irrigation District.
Almost 50 people represented cities, irrigation districts, utility companies, federal agencies and other groups at a July 2011 meeting on the study. Scientists from the Pacific Northwest, Oak Ridge and Argonne national laboratories attended, too.
The groups have been working on the project since 2010, with about $1.2 million spent so far. It will wrap up with a final report and online resources by the year's end. The study's outcomes could assist people on a local level, around the state and nationally.
While hydropower is not new to Central Oregon, the Deschutes basin has emerged as a national leader in establishing smaller-scale hydroelectric projects, and untapped opportunities abound, the report states.
“Working through these projects takes a lot of effort,” said Simon Geerlofs, a
Seattle-based Pacific Northwest National Laboratory analyst who's managing the study.
Selecting the Deschutes
Despite the establishment of small hydro projects in the basin, it took almost a year for researchers and people working with them to weed out other river basins before they selected the Deschutes in February 2011.
Criteria for selection included existing hydropower projects, “significant opportunities” for future hydropower generation and environmental restoration, coordination or leadership across the basin and the ability to share lessons learned with other river basins.
Portland General Electric's willingness to work with other local organizations made a difference in choosing the Deschutes for the pilot project, according to the report.
Generating up to 376 megawatts of electricity — which can power more than 280,000 homes — at the Pelton Round Butte dam complex it owns with the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs, Portland General Electric is “the major power producer in the basin,” the report states.
One distinguishing character trait for the Deschutes basin : 90 percent of its water is for agricultural purposes, according to a 2011 report from the Deschutes Water Alliance, a long-term water-management planning group.
But other river basins in the U.S. may have their own unique considerations , which makes the Deschutes study relevant for other basins, Geerlofs said.
Irrigation, he said, is “the third leg of the stool” in the Deschutes basin.
It was apparent to Geerlofs and his colleagues from the beginning of the study —
toward the end of 2010 — that irrigators would need to be considered for the study, because almost all the basin's hydroelectric projects are tied to irrigation districts, Geerlofs said.
Cache of sites
Now that the researchers have accumulated more than 60 sites for potential hydroelectric generation in the study area, they are figuring out how the sites relate to one another, Geerlofs said.
Researchers will upload to the project website (see “On the Web”) key findings and reports they produce during the project's two-year duration. They will also release an online tool for visualizing power-generation and environmental-improvement opportunities on rivers and canals and effects on other water users.
Case studies will be posted on Central Oregon Irrigation District's 5-megawatt Juniper Ridge hydroelectric project and Swalley Irrigation District's 750-kilowatt Ponderosa hydroelectric project, both of which came online north of Bend in 2010.
The two installations exemplify the importance of accommodating multiple interests in hydroelectric development, Geerlofs said.
“You don't quite understand how complicated this stuff is until you get into it,” he said.
The final report itself should be released by year's end. Another meeting of local representatives should follow soon thereafter, he said.
Once done with the Deschutes study, the researchers plan to look at other river basins around the country and carry out a process similar to the one under way now, Geerlofs said.
Locally, the researchers' results could support planning efforts for the Deschutes basin, which has been going on since around 2004, said Tod Heisler, executive director of the nonprofit Deschutes River Conservancy.
The online visualization tool for analyzing a variety of scenarios, possibly including the effects of climate change, could be the best resource available so far, Heisler said.
“This is a tool that we hope will help us look at some of those big water-management issues and help us ... put together a better regional water-management strategy and agreement,” he said.
The tool could smooth out the approval process for hydroelectric facilities, because applicants should be able to see potential impacts to the environment and water supply before submitting proposals, said Kyle Gorman, manager of Oregon's south-central region at the state's Water Resources Department.
And the tool could show the public how minimally projects in canals affect fish and water supplies for farmers, said Jim Wagner, a consultant working with Earth by Design Inc., which is planning a hydroelectric plant on a North Unit Irrigation District canal north of Haystack Reservoir.
Looking at all interests across a whole basin makes sense to Erik Steimle, head of licensing in the United States for Toronto-based Riverbank Power, which wants to build a 7-megawatt hydroelectric project at Wickiup Reservoir.
“Hydropower is a clean source of local electricity, and new products can be built in ways that are in concert with the local environment,” he said.