is hoping to divert water released from Wickiup Dam,
above, to turn a turbine, generating enough electricity
to power more than 2,000 homes.
Pete Erickson / The Bulletin
Wickiup Dam could see a hydroelectric upgrade
Proposal includes a water turbine that eventually could
power 2,000 homes
/ The Bulletin
September 04. 2008
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
“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
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.”
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.
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
“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
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
“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
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.