PUD wants 10 new mini-dams; environmentalists see trouble
By David Chircop
MONROE — More dams are coming.
These aren’t the hulking concrete structures of the past.Instead, the Snohomish County PUD wants to construct miniature versions — “micro hydro” in industry jargon — in the upper reaches of streams and creeks, above already existing natural barriers to salmon and other migratory fish.
The public utility already purchased an existing miniature dam — 6 feet tall and 35 feet across — last year on Woods Creek near Monroe. It’s providing enough power for several hundred homes.
This fall, it plans to begin building another small dam near Sultan.
The agency wants to build as many as 10 new dams in the next decade to provide a small but important source of energy for the area.
If successful, the PUD’s effort would likely mark the greatest boom of new dam construction by a single utility in the United States in years, according to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which issues licenses for dams.
These new dams will have little if any effect on fish or water quality, utility officials say. They add it’s important to explore forms of power generation other than traditional fossil fuel-burning power plants.
This region is blessed with natural resources: streams and creeks as well as tides and volcanic activity. It only makes sense to tap into them for energy, PUD general manager Steve Klein said.
“The tides go on forever, the streams flow forever and the heat of the earth is virtually limitless,” Klein said.
Building new dams is not an easy prospect when environmentalists, tribes and fishermen are fighting to take sledgehammers to existing ones.
While the dams of the past created great public benefits, they also choked dry countless rivers, blocked hundreds of miles of salmon runs, silted spawning grounds and made it difficult for many native fish species to survive.
Even small dams can harm the environment, said Darcy Nonemacher of the national conservation group American Rivers.
“There is a tendency to call them small hydro, or micro hydro, but that can be greenwashing for the hydro industry,” Nonemacher said.
State rich in water power
Flick on a light switch in any home in this state and the electricity that flows to the bulb likely comes from a dam.
Washington is the nation’s leading producer of hydropower. Nearly three-fourths of the electricity generated in the state comes from dams, according to the federal Department of Energy.
With many dams built by the federal government during the Great Depression, Washington continues to benefit from subsidized electricity and enjoys among the lowest rates in the country.
The Grand Coulee Dam completed in 1942 on the Columbia River in Eastern Washington produces more energy than any other hydroelectric plant in the U.S.
Months after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, electricity from the Grand Coulee helped make the aluminium used for thousands of American warships and planes.
More recently, power-hungry Internet giant Google built a massive “server farm” to tap into this cheap Columbia River electricity.
The PUD itself has been in the dam business since 1964 when it bought a share of the Packwood Lake Hydroelectric project 20 miles south of Mount Rainier.
Twenty years later, the utility began generating its own hydropower at the Henry M. Jackson Hydroelectric Project in the Sultan River Basin and from the 640-foot-long, 263-foot-high Culmback Dam in eastern Snohomish County. It produces enough energy to serve nearly 36,000 homes.
“You can’t build the classic dam anymore,” said Scott Spahr, a senior engineer with the PUD.
One small example
Stand at the foot of Coho Falls along Woods Creek and there’s little clue that a dam just a few yards away is generating power.
A steady rush of water spills down the rocky cliff even though a 6-foot-tall dam on the ridge above diverts half of the creek’s flow.
Two turbines rumble in a nearby powerhouse, but their deafening hum is muted by concrete walls and the splash of the waterfall.
The PUD snapped up this hydro plant from a private energy company early last year for $1.1 million. It was built in the early 1980s.
Hydroelectric dams such as this one can help the utility avoid seasonal power shortages, because they operate at their peak in the winter as customers turn up their thermostats and energy demand is at its highest.
A utility consultant is now paring a list of about 100 potential sites for small dams on creeks and streams in the county as well as throughout Western Washington. A list of preferred sites is expected to be released this summer.
The utility expects the 10 new hydropower projects to range between 2 megawatts and 25 megawatts apiece — enough to power between 1,500 and 18,000 homes each.
Last year, the PUD also purchased land, plans and the license for a second small dam along Youngs Creek, four miles south of Sultan. Construction is scheduled to begin this fall. It is expected to cost about $30 million and to produce enough juice for 1,600 homes.
The PUD has good reason to look for new sources of power.
The Bonneville Power Administration, based in Portland, Ore., supplies electricity for much of the Pacific Northwest including the Snohomish County PUD.
Demand for power from the federal agency is growing faster than it can provide it.
Part of it is the steady increase in population. Part of it is the big-screen TVs, computers, air-conditioning and even electric cars that are part of modern life.
All this means the PUD and other utilities will have to produce their own energy or be forced to buy costly electricity on the open market.
Some have doubts
Small dams come with hefty price tags and can hurt rivers and streams just like large ones, opponents warn.
State Rep. John McCoy, D-Tulalip, said he is against any new dam construction in the state and said the PUD is soft-pedaling some of the environmental impacts associated with new hydro projects.
“They impound water and some of them are pretty damn big, so I’m not in favor of those,” said McCoy, who is the chairman of the House Technology, Energy and Communications Committee.
Environmentalists across the West are also taking notice of the PUD’s new interest in hydropower.
American Whitewater, a North Carolina-based recreation advocacy group, and the National Heritage Institute, a San Francisco-based conservancy group, attempted unsuccessfully last year to get the federal government to require an update of 20-year-old environmental studies on the Youngs Creek Project before it could be built.
That dam — planned at 12 feet high and 65 feet across — would create a 1.5-acre reservoir, the streambed would need to be excavated and a 7-mile long underground power line installed.
A 3-mile stretch of the creek downstream from the dam will see less water.
“The environmental and societal costs of (small hydro) can outweigh the benefits,” said Thomas O’Keefe, regional director for the advocacy group American Whitewater.
Protecting salmon habitat has been a leading cause for American Indian tribes in the Pacific Northwest. The Tulalip Tribes are among about two dozen Western Washington tribes that plan to face state attorneys in federal court over broken culverts that block salmon and other fish from migrating to and from their spawning grounds.
Snohomish County Councilman Dave Somers said a similar attempt by the PUD to build small hydropower projects in the area was met with resistance by state agencies and tribes back in the 1980s when he worked as a fish biologist for the Tulalip Tribes.
Somers, whose district includes much of the Snohomish River Basin in the eastern part of the county, said some of these planned projects are in difficult terrain for construction and include relatively undisturbed habitat that is important to salmon. “Each project you have to look at very carefully; they’re not automatically low impact,” Somers said. “I’m not saying they’re necessarily bad, but they’re not going to be a cinch to build.”
Despite concerns, interest in new dams is growing as coal prices skyrocket and states force utilities to search for cleaner power.
Since 2000, the federal government has issued 23 new federal dam operation licenses, 11 of those were approved in the last three years.
“The trend is definitely up,” said Celeste Miller, a FERC spokeswoman.
The PUD expects each new project will take three to five years from license application to construction. It’s a trail loaded with regulatory hurdles, public comment periods and environmental impact studies.
Dave Aldrich, a PUD commissioner, who is widely regarded as a cheerleader for green energy development, said the utility’s plan for small-scale electricity generation is a compromise that takes environmental concerns seriously.
“There needs to be a new look at small, low-impact hydro,” PUD Commissioner Dave Aldrich said. “No one should construe our effort as an assault on the environment.”