Researchers consider Deschutes

September 16, 2012
Researchers consider Deschutes

Researchers at three national scientific laboratories haveteamed up with state water experts, environmentalists and localirrigation officials to study how to increase hydropower generation inthe region while still providing enough water for farmers, ranchers andfish.

The scientists want their efforts in the Deschutes RiverBasin — the Deschutes River, from the Pelton Round Butte dam complexsouth to the headwaters, and the Crooked River, along with theirtributaries and canals — to serve as an example for other regions aroundthe nation.

Instead of considering each hydropower project andits effects on fish and water flow separately, the study approachesthem from a basinwide perspective. The resulting research could helpspeed up the approval processes.

Developers will be able toexplore many potential sites in the basin at once and see the impactsthey would cause up front, rather than dealing with them in the middleof the approval process.

In past decades, the major push and pullon rivers has concerned the desire to generate renewable energy fromdams and the desire to protect waterways for fish. The Northwest'slargest 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.

Collaboratingto spot opportunities for improving stream flows, generating powerand ensuring water for irrigation districts across a river basin, ratherthan one location in it, can yield benefits for all involved parties,such as lowering analysis costs and forming partnerships among otherwisedisparate groups, according to a report on the progress of the study,which was released in September 2011, halfway through the project.

Nearlyevery hydropower-related group imaginable is participating in thestudy, from the U.S. Department of Energy on down to the Central OregonIrrigation District.

Almost 50 people represented cities,irrigation districts, utility companies, federal agencies and othergroups at a July 2011 meeting on the study. Scientists from the PacificNorthwest, Oak Ridge and Argonne national laboratories attended, too.

Thegroups have been working on the project since 2010, with about $1.2million spent so far. It will wrap up with a final report and onlineresources by the year's end. The study's outcomes could assist peopleon a local level, around the state and nationally.

Whilehydropower is not new to Central Oregon, the Deschutes basin has emergedas a national leader in establishing smaller-scale hydroelectricprojects, 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

Despitethe establishment of small hydro projects in the basin, it took almost ayear for researchers and people working with them to weed out otherriver basins before they selected the Deschutes in February 2011.

Criteriafor selection included existing hydropower projects, “significantopportunities” for future hydropower generation and environmentalrestoration, coordination or leadership across the basin and the abilityto share lessons learned with other river basins.

PortlandGeneral Electric's willingness to work with other local organizationsmade a difference in choosing the Deschutes for the pilot project,according to the report.

Generating up to 376 megawatts ofelectricity — which can power more than 280,000 homes — at the PeltonRound Butte dam complex it owns with the Confederated Tribes of WarmSprings, Portland General Electric is “the major power producer in thebasin,” the report states.

One distinguishing character traitfor the Deschutes basin : 90 percent of its water is for agriculturalpurposes, according to a 2011 report from the Deschutes Water Alliance, along-term water-management planning group.

But other riverbasins in the U.S. may have their own unique considerations , whichmakes 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 —

towardthe end of 2010 — that irrigators would need to be considered for thestudy, because almost all the basin's hydroelectric projects are tied toirrigation districts, Geerlofs said.

Cache of sites

Nowthat the researchers have accumulated more than 60 sites for potentialhydroelectric generation in the study area, they are figuring out howthe sites relate to one another, Geerlofs said.

Researchers willupload to the project website (see “On the Web”) key findings andreports they produce during the project's two-year duration. They willalso release an online tool for visualizing power-generation andenvironmental-improvement opportunities on rivers and canals and effectson other water users.

Case studies will be posted on CentralOregon Irrigation District's 5-megawatt Juniper Ridge hydroelectricproject and Swalley Irrigation District's 750-kilowatt Ponderosahydroelectric 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.

Thefinal report itself should be released by year's end. Another meetingof local representatives should follow soon thereafter, he said.

Oncedone with the Deschutes study, the researchers plan to look at otherriver basins around the country and carry out a process similar to theone under way now, Geerlofs said.

Accelerating processes

Locally,the researchers' results could support planning efforts for theDeschutes basin, which has been going on since around 2004, said TodHeisler, executive director of the nonprofit Deschutes RiverConservancy.

The online visualization tool for analyzing a varietyof scenarios, possibly including the effects of climate change, couldbe the best resource available so far, Heisler said.

“This is atool that we hope will help us look at some of those bigwater-management issues and help us ... put together a better regionalwater-management strategy and agreement,” he said.

The tool couldsmooth out the approval process for hydroelectric facilities, becauseapplicants should be able to see potential impacts to the environmentand water supply before submitting proposals, said Kyle Gorman, managerof Oregon's south-central region at the state's Water ResourcesDepartment.

And the tool could show the public how minimallyprojects in canals affect fish and water supplies for farmers, said JimWagner, a consultant working with Earth by Design Inc., which isplanning a hydroelectric plant on a North Unit Irrigation District canalnorth of Haystack Reservoir.

Looking at all interests across awhole basin makes sense to Erik Steimle, head of licensing in the UnitedStates for Toronto-based Riverbank Power, which wants to build a7-megawatt hydroelectric project at Wickiup Reservoir.

“Hydropoweris a clean source of local electricity, and new products can be builtin ways that are in concert with the local environment,” he said.

— Reporter: 541-633-2117,

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