Walden tours The Dalles Dam
U.S. Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., went on a tour of The Dalles Dam Saturday to see a new navigation lock gate and discuss power generation and environmental issues with U.S. Army Corps of Engineers administrators.
“I think I last took a tour here when I was in the sixth grade at Dry Hollow (Elementary),” said Walden, who spent part of his childhood in Wasco County and now resides in Hood River.
He decided to visit the dam because the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which he chairs, is working on legislation to increase renewable energy output, including hydropower. Walden wanted to get questions addressed by federal workers before the package of bills was finalized.
“We’ll be moving these bills forward soon so I wanted to talk with some of the experts about hydropower production,” he said. “If we’re not careful, our hydro system will be diminished in value because it’s not being treated as renewable and it is.”
He said hydropower accounted for about 6 percent of total U.S. electrical generation in 2015 and 46 percent of power from renewables.
With less than 3 percent of about 2,200 dams in the United States producing electricity, Walden believes output needs to increase to meet America’s growing energy needs.
“We’re working on infrastructure issues as it relates to power and looking at how we can develop more hydropower in America – it’s a hugely underutilized resource,” said Walden.
The committee is now crafting the Hydropower Policy Modernization Act of 2017 that sets the stage for efficiency improvements to increase power generation at all federal dams. The legislation proposes that the permitting process be streamlined, in part, by minimizing duplication of fish studies and establishing a uniform data base to draw information from on a basin-wide or regional scale.
The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission would streamline the regulatory process by coordinating reviews and establishing consistent procedures for the licensing of hydropower projects.
Walden said licensing new hydropower facilities currently involves consultation with multiple local, state and federal agencies. He said a wide range of issues must be balanced, including potential impacts on environmental and wildlife resources, recreation, aesthetics, cultural resources and land use.
“We are learning from testimony that the duration, complexity and regulatory uncertainty of the licensing process creates significant challenges and has the potential to delay or prevent investments that would expand production,” he said.
Procedures would be established under the act to have disputes over fishery issues decided in a trial-type hearing by an administrative law judge, which Walden said would prevent the project from getting bogged down in long-running legal battles.
“The licensing process for a new hydropower project can last over a decade and cost tens of millions of dollars,” he said.
Other legislative proposals promote development of small conduit hydropower facilities and establish a timeline for reviews and decision deadlines on natural gas pipelines.
The GOP-controlled committee wants to give FERC more flexibility in the licensing process to get existing non-powered dams online. The agency would also be limited in authority to imposing licensing conditions that are necessary to protect public safety, “or are reasonable, economically feasible and essential to protect fish and wildlife resources.”
Also on the committee’s agenda, said Walden, is replacing the presidential permit process, established through executive order, with a “uniform and transparent method” of authorizing construction, connection, operation and maintenance of international border-crossing facilities for the transmission of electricity, as well as the import and export of oil and natural gas.
According to the Congressional Research Center, the value of energy trade between the U.S. and its North American neighbors exceeded $140 billion in 2015, with $100 billion in U.S. energy imports and over $40 billion in exports.
Walden said expansion of pipelines for oil and natural gas, and transmission lines for electricity, is necessary to the energy trade, but most proposed projects have faced federal regulatory uncertainty in recent years.
“In the absence of a statutorily directed process, agencies have made decisions regarding cross-border energy infrastructure by their interpretation of a series of executive orders dating back to the 1950s,” said Walden.
Most notably, he said the Keystone XL pipeline from Canada was rejected by the Obama administration with Congress, the policy making body, given only limited input.
Walden said there is growing evidence that pipeline infrastructure approvals have been delayed unnecessarily due to a lack of coordination among agencies involved in the permitting process.
Army Col. Jose L. Aguilar, district commander for the Corps, welcomed Walden on June 17 to the local dam, one of the top 10 hydropower plants in the United States that is part of an extensive system on the Columbia and Snake rivers.
“This is a multi-purpose dam as you know,” said Aguilar, introducing Walden to other officials who were joining the tour. They were: Kevin Brice, deputy district engineer for project management; Bob Cordie, geologist, and Mike Colesar, chief engineer.
While showing Walden a scale model of the dam, which was completed in 1957, Aguilar explained that the 26 turbines on site generated enough electricity to power a city the size of Portland. In addition, he said the facility provides flood control and irrigation, as well as helping barges and boats travel the river. The reservoir behind the dam is named Lake Celilo and runs 24 miles up the river channel, bringing recreational opportunities.
Colesar said it costs about $15 million per year to run the dam, which generates about $400 million of power.
Aguilar said the dam was on the forefront of environmental stewardship, from management of endangered fish runs to making sure that oil leaks or spills from vessels are immediately cleaned up.
When Walden and his hosts reached the control room, they were told by Chief Operator Dave Duvall “to “walk anywhere they wanted but not touch anything.”
The hub served as the brain center of the dam, he said, and all movement of water was controlled from that location.
He showed screens of data, including a Bonneville Power Administration predictive analysis of reservoir control, and walked Walden through the processes used to adjust river levels for flood mitigation and operation of the navigation locks.
The group was then driven across the top of the dam to the navigation lock to look at the new 110.5 ton gate that had recently been installed. The previous gate was 50 years old and replaced earlier this year.
Aguilar said the gate is a vital piece of machinery for operation of the locks, so it was essential to keep it from failing.
Statistics provided by the Corps show that the locks annually support transit of nine million tons of cargo worth $3 billion, including about 40 percent of the nation’s wheat.
In addition to replacement of the gate, the Corps made improvements to the control system.
“They really did a great job of updating the dam,” said Walden at the end of the 90-minute tour.