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Plant may be built on North Canal Dam

By Kate Ramsayer
Bend Bulletin

Bend’s North Canal Dam, just off of Division Street, has become a focus of the interest swirling around small hydropower projects in Central Oregon.

Two companies and an irrigation district have all applied for the federal OK to study the potential of a power-generating plant at the site just south of The Riverhouse in Bend, and a fourth group might throw its hat into the ring as well.

"It all goes back to incentives,” said Mike Britton, manager of the North Unit Irrigation District, which diverts irrigation water at the dam. "Today, with the incentives that are available, there’s a chance it can pencil out.”

So at sites across Central Oregon, including Wickiup and Bowman dams, companies are trying to see if they can make it work. Irrigation districts plan to put small hydropower facilities on their canals. And at the North Canal Dam, several parties want the chance to see if they can use the flows of the Deschutes River to generate a relatively small amount of power.

Sierra Energy Co., based in California, was first to file an application for a preliminary permit with federal regulators.

The permit would give Sierra three years to study the environmental and economic effects of building a hydropower plant on the dam and give the company dibs on developing a specific plan for the project. A plant could produce 7.2 gigawatts of electricity annually, according to initial plans — about enough to power 600 Oregon homes.

But a second company, KC Hydro, filed a competing application for the same site just days before the deadline to do so.

And right up against the deadline, the North Unit Irrigation District stated that it was planning to file an application as well — and because irrigation districts are considered a municipal corporation, it will get priority.

"We have some hydro projects that we’ve been looking at, and that wasn’t one that was high on our list,” Britton said of the North Canal project. "But in order to protect our interest at the site we decided to go ahead and file for an application.”

With North Unit’s application taking priority, Sierra Energy will just track the irrigation district’s progress to make sure it files the proper updates, said Brad Reeves, owner of Sierra Energy.

"They had 60 days to intervene, they did, so now we just have to watch them — and that’s what I intend to do,” he said. "They have to show that they’re moving forward and doing due diligence.”

Reeves said that he tried to work out a deal to partner with North Unit on the project but that the irrigation district wanted too much money.

Kelly Sackheim with KC Hydro said that she filed a permit application after she learned that Reeves was looking at the site and also did some research on her own.

"We came in and said, ‘You know, we’d like to be the ones at the dance here,’” Sackheim said.

Her company wants to work on the project with the North Unit, Central Oregon and Swalley irrigation districts, all of which draw water from the Deschutes River at the North Canal Dam.

A company like KC Hydro would bring in resources to help design and build a hydroelectric project, she said, and could also help construct and operate it cost-effectively.

North Unit has not agreed to partner with anyone yet, Britton said — although it could team up with a private company in the future.

The irrigation district is already working with Utah-based Symbiotics to study the possibility of hydropower on Wickiup Dam on the Upper Deschutes. That effort came after Symbiotics filed an application in 2001, and North Unit filed a competing application. When Symbiotics filed a second application in early 2008, the two parties worked out an agreement.

At the North Canal site, in addition to the companies and irrigation district, the Steidl Dam Co., owned by the same family that owns The Riverhouse and the land surrounding the dam, has expressed interest in the project as well.

"We actually have looked at this for a long time as a possible place to do something,” said Wayne Purcell with Steidl. "We’d want to make sure it was done in the right way that didn’t harm the river.”

Anyone accessing the dam would have to cross property owned by Steidl, he noted. And the company might file an application to study the site in the future, or it might join up with one of the other interested parties.

"We’ve been contacted by a few people, and we’re just keeping the door open for everybody,” Purcell said.

But even with all the interest in putting a hydropower facility along the Deschutes River, no one knows what, if anything, will eventually be built on the site.

"I think people are looking at renewable energy, and they’re going out and slapping down claims to stuff, and they’ll decide later whether or not it’s feasible,” Purcell said.

North Unit plans to study how much water would pass through a hydroelectric plant, how much electricity it could generate and what the cost of building a facility would be, Britton said. And it will consider financial incentives, like the state’s Business Energy Tax Credits and low-interest loans.

"Once the site is studied, and we have the pertinent information,” he said, "that’s when we’ll know if it’s a project the district can take on.”

North Canal Dam is already the subject of negotiations between Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife and the Central Oregon Irrigation District and Swalley Irrigation District. The agency says the districts need to put a fish ladder or other structure at the site because they are putting small hydroelectric facilities several miles downstream at the end of their irrigation canals; the districts disagree.

Those negotiations are ongoing, said Steve Johnson, manager of the Central Oregon Irrigation District. But if a company or North Unit built a hydroelectric plant right at North Canal Dam, they would have to address fish passage and a number of other regulatory hurdles as well.

Neighbors of the dam are sensitive to any development on the waterway, he said, and in addition to putting in fish protections and getting clean water certifications, any hydro developers would also make sure they don’t disrupt the flows of irrigation water to districts and their customers.

"It’d be great to get some additional renewable (energy) in Bend, it’s just got all these issues to deal with,” Johnson said.

Kate Ramsayer can be reached at 541-617-7811 or kramsayer@bendbulletin.com.

Bend Bulletin
Bend, OR
January 20, 2010

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