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Hydropower boom may not be a bust for salmon

July 27, 2009 |  6:52 am

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With the big push for renewable energy, hydropower is getting a new lease on life. The Chelan County Public Utility District in Washington state is trying to get more power out of the Columbia River without harming endangered salmon. How will this change the dialogue about dams and fish?

Giving dam-generated electricity a big new lease on life under the mantle of clean energy has proved problematic for environmentalists, who have long seen dams as fish-killers. But more of them are coming to see the benefits of so-called incremental power, done in conservation-smart ways.

John Seebach, director of the Hydropower Reform Initiative launched by the conservation group American Rivers, said his organization has elected to support “green” credentials for incremental power generated at existing dams as long as it provides protections for fish and other wildlife values.

“Hydropower does have pretty significant and serious impacts on rivers. We know that. The industry knows that. It also provides some pretty significant benefits in terms of power production. So it’s a tricky balance to get those benefits while trying to minimize those impacts,” he said.

One organization that has tried to set standards for what can be considered “green” hydropower is the Low-Impact Hydropower Institute, based in Maine, which certifies hydropower projects, much like an organic food label. It looks at protections for such things as water quality, fish protection, recreation and cultural resources protection.

Fred Ayer, executive director, said the institute has certified about 110 dams, from Maine to Alaska, with a capacity of about 2,000 megawatts. This has been possible because of a dramatic change in the hydropower industry itself, which now has far more managers with resource protection backgrounds.

“When I entered this business 35 years ago, the people running the show were pretty much engineers and accountants — and their lawyers,” he said. “Today, if you go to a big hydropower conference, half the people in the room will be women. I mean, that was unheard of before.”

Still, some conservationists are wary of jumping on board the hydropower bandwagon without more proof. Sure, juvenile fish may be making it safely past the Rocky Reach Dam in Chelan County, says Natalie Brandon of the group Save Our Wild Salmon, but how stressed are they, and how does that affect their long-term survival?

"In the Columbia/Snake [rivers], a lot of salmon and steelhead survive passing through the dams and make it out to the ocean, but they don't make it back," Brandon said. "We think that the accumulated stress of going over eight dams stresses the immune systems of the fish, making them more vulnerable to parasites, disease and predators once they're out in the ocean."

In Chelan County, officials believe that providing more power with the same amount of water is good for the environment, and good for fish.

“We’re saying, let’s skip the new facilities, skip the regulatory issues associated with new dams and go to our existing facilities and get more value from them," said Tracy Yount, the Chelan County PUD's external affairs director.

“The regulatory landscapes are completely changing right now .We are realizing that whatever issues we’ve had to deal with in the past with the Clean Water Act and the Endangered Species Act, they’re probably going to pale in comparison to the credit market and climate change."

-- Kim Murphy

Photo: Darrell Gouldin, managing director of the generation division of the public utility department of Chelan County in Washington state, near the large juvenile fish passage tunnel constructed to help young salmon safely pass Rocky Reach Dam on the Columbia River. Credit: Scott Eklund / Red Box Pictures for The Times.

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