Many cities and irrigation districts across the state have developed new plans to build small-scale hydroelectric projects.
These aren’t your grandparents’ dams – they are smaller generators — on pipes — that take advantage of the energy in the stream flow.
Central Oregon correspondent Ethan Lindsey reports on one such proposal, in Bend.
More than ten miles west of Bend, up in the mountains toward the Three Sisters, a small house was built in the 1920s.
Back then, it wasn’t a quick drive from downtown Bend – especially in the winter when the snow comes down.
The house was for the city’s water caretaker.
The flow from Tumalo Creek provides much of the city’s drinking water, and the caretaker made sure the pipes were working.
Tom Hickmann is the city’s interim assistant public works director.
At the top of a cramped stairwell, Hickmann opens the door to the caretaker’s bedroom.
Tom Hickmann: “The story goes that in the 20s and 30s, when they lived here, this window – we’re two stories up right now – this window was the front door for them in the winter time, because the snow got that deep.”
The house isn’t the only piece of antique workmanship here.
The two main pipes that carry water 11 miles from the mountains to the city are also from the 20s.
And, the city’s water system must be upgraded, to meet federal standards.
Hickmann says depending on what the city decides to do, the fixes could cost anywhere from $10 to $70 million.
If the city spends more to replace the ancient pipes, it could build a hydroelectric generator along the route.
Tom Hickmann: “The hydroelectric potential here was an afterthought. It was one of those, whether you want to call it an a-ha moment or a duh, what were you thinking moment, either way the reality became we have 1000 feet of potential energy.”
The hydro power could produce an estimated $1.5 million for the city.
And that gives Bend more control over its own energy future.
But residents are concerned they’d have to pay more on their water bills, up front, to build it.
At a city budget meeting where this project was discussed briefly, anti-tax residents and councilors expressed skepticism.
Environmentalists, though, aren’t inherently against it.
Remember, it’s not a dam – so concerns over fish kill and habitat destruction are reduced.
Ryan Houston is the executive director of the Upper Deschutes Watershed Council.
Houston’s job is to look out for fish and habitat concerns. He says his fear of climate change makes him very supportive of renewable power sources like this.
Ryan Houston: “The questions I have are generally over potential future scenarios.”
Houston points out the hydro project may reduce the amount of water farmers can use from Tumalo Creek.
Those farmers instead could choose to pull their water from the bigger Deschutes River.
And that could have a devastating affect on fish restoration.
Ryan Houston: “Whenever you change a system, there is always that added element of complexity because it is now a new situation.”
Back at the caretaker’s Tumalo Creek house, Tom Hickmann says he’s an engineer – and he knows the numbers can be figured out beforehand.
But a lot of this comes down to values.
Tom Hickmann: “Our parents, our grandparents, made this investment – the investment we’re standing on right here, right now. And it was painful when they made it! And we’ve benefited from their investment for the last 80 years.”
Hickmann says the city will get a feasibility report over the summer.
Councilors will then have to decide whether the increased rates now are worth it in the end.