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ODFW fish passage requirement prompts study that could determine future of project

CENTRAL OREGONIAN FILE PHOTO - Personnel with Crook County, City of Prineville and Ochoco Irrigation District are conducting a study in hopes of proving that a hydroelectric power plant will slow water spilling off the dam and reduce total dissolved gas bubbles, which is helpful to fish habitat.

An attempt to build a hydroelectric power plant on Bowman Dam is facing a new hurdle.

Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife mandates that any hydroelectric project provide fish passage from one side of the dam to the other. However, such an addition would push the cost of the project beyond the means of the local entities pursuing the power plant.

Construction of a hydroelectric dam has faced an uphill battle for many years, dating back to when a federal Wild and Scenic designation on the Crooked River limited what could be done on the dam.

"The river below the dam was part of the Wild and Scenic area," said Eric Klann, city engineer with the City of Prineville. "The upper limit of the Wild and Scenic boundary was right at the crest of the dam."

Following a multi-year effort by many leaders throughout the Central Oregon region, the federal boundary issue disappeared when Congress passed the Crooked River Collaborative Water Security Act in 2014. The bill made many changes related to the Crooked River and Bowman Dam, including moving the Wild and Scenic boundary from the dam to a location one quarter-mile downstream.

Once the legislation took effect, local officials began work on a potential hydroelectric project.

"The city, the county and Ochoco Irrigation District have created an intergovernmental agreement," Klann said. "We have applied to FERC (Federal Energy Regulatory Commission) and they have issued us a preliminary permit. Now we have three years to get a license."

Klann said the process of securing a license will include multiple studies that examine how a hydroelectric power plant will impact fish and wildlife as well as other environmental concerns. The first of these studies might prove to be the most critical.

"ODFW has a policy in place that whenever you place a hydroelectric facility on an existing dam, they want you to provide fish passage," Klann explained. "This is a small project (a 2.5 megawatt plant) and there is no way we could ever think about being able to afford fish passage. That would essentially kill this project."

However, local leaders hope to prove the dam would benefit fish in another fashion, thereby allowing continued pursuit of the project without fish passage.

"We are currently studying the total dissolved gas issue on the dam," Klann said. He points out that because the water currently spills over the dam, it generates a lot of energy that is released into the atmosphere.

"It can supersaturate the water with gas bubbles and that can negatively affect and even kill the fish below the dam," he continued. "So what the group is looking at is what benefits there would be putting a hydroelectric project up there. We could convert all of that energy to electrical power. The total dissolved gas issue should be greatly improved."

Project leaders have approached ODFW about the potential fish benefit and hope to soon provide proof to the agency.

"We are currently in the process of developing a large scientific report where we could make the argument to ODFW that by solving the total dissolved gas issue, it is comparable to providing fish passage over the dam," Klann said.

The future of the project likely hinges on that argument.

"This is really the go/no-go for us," he concluded.

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