September 4, 2008 - Bend Bulletin Wickiup Dam Could See A Hydroelectric Upgrade

September 8, 2008
September 4, 2008 - Bend Bulletin Wickiup Dam Could See A Hydroelectric Upgrade

Wickiup Dam could see a hydroelectric upgrade
Proposal includes a water turbine that eventually could power 2,000 homes
By Kate Ramsayer / The Bulletin

Published: September 04. 2008 4:00AM PST Pete Erickson / The Bulletin

Proposal Timeline
April 2009: Federal energy managers determine what environmental studies need to be conducted.

April 2010 or April 2011: With the studies complete, Symbiotics presents them to involved agencies and the public, later files an application for the project.

2012: Construction starts if the permitting process goes as quickly as possible.

2013: Earliest potential start date for producing power at the base of Wickiup Dam.

At the base of Wickiup Dam, where water flows out of the reservoir and into the Deschutes River, a company hopes to tap the running water to generate electricity.

Instead of going through a spillway, the water released from the dam would be diverted and used to turn a turbine, generating enough electricity to power more than 2,000 homes, said Erik Steimle, director of environmental compliance with Symbiotics, which is proposing the project. And once the water rotated the turbines, it would flow into the Deschutes.

“We would just generate electricity based on normal (water flows),” Steimle said.

But some agencies first have to ensure that the project won’t damage habitat, disrupt the river’s flow or lessen the qualities that make the Upper Deschutes a Wild and Scenic River.

So as Symbiotics starts the multiyear permitting process that could lead to the plant’s construction as soon as 2013, different agencies and organizations are weighing in about what environmental studies the company needs to conduct.

“This is somewhat different from a new dam,” said Rod Bonacker, special projects coordinator with the U.S. Forest Service. “The dam’s already there. A lot of the impacts are already in place. So we have to look at what, if any, impacts are caused by the turbine … and then see if there’s anything that needs to be fixed.”

Environmental concerns

The first concern, he said, is that the uppermost portion of the Deschutes River is a federally designated Wild and Scenic River. So the hydropower facility and the electric transmission lines can’t be built within that designated boundary, and they can’t mar scenic views or wildlife habitat along the river.

A couple of pairs of bald eagles nest in the area, and while they probably wouldn’t be disturbed by a turbine in the river, new power lines might pose a problem, he said.

And spotted frogs live in the Wickiup area, said Nancy Gilbert with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and they are a candidate species for listing under the Endangered Species Act. Plus, there are a number of fish species that still swim in Wickiup Reservoir and the Upper Deschutes.

“We’re interested in having them assess the habitat quantity and quality, and the species that are there,” she said. Then, the company can look at whether its project would damage those habitats or disturb the species.

Fish that currently are sucked through the spillway, Bonacker said, could get chopped up by a turbine — another issue the environmental studies will have to look into.

Potential benefits?

The hydropower project could also potentially benefit the river by changing water flows in certain ways, said Bonacker, the Forest Service’s project coordinator.

The facility would only use the amount of water normally released from the reservoir. But the Forest Service is considering working with the company, the Bureau of Reclamation, which owns the dam, and the North Unit Irrigation District, which uses the stored water, to make those flows out of the reservoir more consistent.

Other hydropower facilities release widely fluctuating amounts of water in order to generate power when customers need it the most, said Tod Heisler, executive director of the Deschutes River Conservancy. But that can damage the riverbanks.

“What we wouldn’t want to see is too much fluctuation in flow,” Heisler said. “No flow is bad, but also highly fluctuating flow is bad. … If you’re doing that on a regular basis, you’re going to damage the riparian area and the water quality.”

For the North Unit Irrigation District, the main concern with the project is making sure the water supply to farms and ranches is consistent, said Richard Macy, chairman of the irrigation district’s board.

But the district is also working on an agreement with Symbiotics that would give the district approval over the project as well as a financial return on any power that’s generated.

“North Unit’s patrons are in favor of creating any good, clean, green energy that we can,” Macy said. “Where there’s an opportunity with falling water, we’re in favor of it, and we’d like an opportunity for the district to benefit.”

The district had even proposed building its own hydro facility at the site previously, but it didn’t pencil out financially.

Using existing dams

Across the country, about 20 hydropower facilities have been built onto existing Bureau of Reclamation dams, and more on dams managed by other agencies, said Robert Ross, regional coordinator between the bureau and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which will ultimately decide whether the project would be built.

From the federal government’s perspective, he said, it’s in the country’s interest to generate power from dams that are already constructed.

“It is best that we develop renewable resources, and you wouldn’t want it to go to waste,” Ross said.

In 2001, Symbiotics looked at more than 12,000 structures nationwide to see which ones had enough power potential to build a plant, and where it could be generated in an environmentally benign manner.

This project could only require about 110 feet of new power lines to connect to Midstate Electrical Cooperative’s system, he said.

Bill Kopacz, Midstate’s general manager, said about seven miles of existing power lines would have to be upgraded to deal with the additional electricity, however.

But Symbiotics would have to make sure that the hydropower facility doesn’t alter the temperature of the water, cause erosion of the riverbanks or damage the water quality, Steimle said, addressing the questions posed by different federal and state agencies.

“A lot of the controversy comes from dams that are built for hydropower reasons,” he said. “But in this case, the dam’s already built.”

Kate Ramsayer can be reached at 541-617-7811 or


Published Daily in Bend Oregon by Western Communications, Inc. © 2008

Share this post