Day Four: Hydropower Highway

BRIDGES Cohort wraps up Field Lab with double dam day.

The Cohort examines Rocky Reach Dam’s juvenile fish passage, where their guide claimed that 93% of juvenile chinook steelhead and bull trout survive passage to and from the reservoir above.  This system is the only of its kind in the world.


On their last day of exploring WEF issues in the Columbia River Basin, the BRIDGES Crew went dam crazy. In the morning, the Cohort drove out to Rocky Reach Dam, just north of Wenatchee, WA. Along the way, the landscape shifted from lush Pacific Northwest forests, to sprawling orchards, to the arid lowlands of the Columbia river valley.


Jeff Osborn and Shaun Seaman of the Chelan County Public Utility District described the mission of the district’s hydropower projects, which includes Rocky Reach, Rock Island and Lake Chelan. They emphasized their focus on environmental stewardship and their commitment to adaptive management. The Chelan County PUD produces 2000 total megawatts (~1200 from Rocky Reach), with 250 of those megawatts going to Chelan County and the rest sold to regional utilities like Puget Sound Energy which serves Seattle. Rocky Reach was built with heavy subsidies from the federal government in the 50s and 60s and provides electricity at some of the cheapest rates in the world at 3.2 cents per kilowatt hour. That’s 1/20 of the rate in Germany.


The Cohort followed Osborn and Seaman into the dimly lit bowels of the dam’s power station where energy is transferred from the water to the grid.  The 100-ton turbine shafts spin at 90 rpm, driven by the Columbia River at a force of over 15,000 cubic feet per second. Above the giant turbine shaft, the BRIDGES crew climbed up to the vast generator floor.  Most of the dam might seem passive, but in the generator room, work is constantly underway to keep things running. At both ends of the floor, technicians worked on maintaining equipment, some zipping by bicycle back and forth across the great expanse.


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Rock Reach was just the beginning. The Cohort continued down the road to the largest concrete structure in North America and one of the largest dams in the world, Grand Coulee Dam. A marvel of engineering, Grand Coulee turned dry steppe into productive farmland and sends power as far south as California. Yet, these advances came with a cost. Construction of the dam and the creation of the reservoir behind it (Franklin D. Roosevelt Lake) inundated Kettle Falls, an important Native American fishing ground. While Rocky Reach has significant infrastructure for fish passage, Grand Coulee lacks any kind. There’s no saving salmon here.


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On top of the dam, the Cohort looked over the edge – a 380-foot drop where water rushed  out of 8-foot spillways at 75 mph. There was a bathtub ring around Roosevelt Lake – the result of a water drawdown in anticipation of some heavy snowpack melt. Back in Montana, the gushing headwaters were rushing down to meet Grand Coulee.


Our tour guide Teresa began by driving us to various sites around the dam to get a full perspective of the project.  Pumped storage provides a large reservoir for irrigation and allows backflow to produce electricity during peak grid demand.  Dams can experience negative pricing when the grid is flush with electricity, a circumstance where they could have to pay other electrical producers to shut down so their electrical output has somewhere to go.  At Grand Coulee, they can use this excess power to pump water up into their irrigation reservoir canal that acts as a battery.  A pumped storage facility is currently in development in Montana.

In the dam’s heart the BRIDGES crew watched whirring turbines, traveled down spooky tunnels and bathed in the retro color schemes. Our intrepid and ebullient guide Teresa left no corridor untrodden, no dam detail unaddressed.  At one point, the group encountered a mechanical engineer who explained how energy created at Coulee synchs up with the North America electrical grid.

Rocky Reach and Grand Coulee offered different scales of hydropower production. Dams are often celebrated as “carbon-free” or “renewable.”  Hydropower – at first glance – seems like a welcome alternative to the heavy environmental costs of other forms of energy production, like coal or natural gas. But it still poses challenges to sustaining fish habitat and has left indelible effects on the landscape. The Cohort came away with some hope in hydropower, but also many questions on how to do it better, with even less impact on the Columbia River Basin.


Day Three: Take me to the river

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In the Columbia River Basin, scientists take notice. The river has undergone some drastic re-plumbing in its modern history. Dams and diversions have altered everything from fish populations to water chemistry. These conditions make for a unique laboratory that attracts a diverse range of researchers to the area. According to scientist Tim Scheibe, as a lab, the Columbia and its surroundings are the “perfect example of issues at the food-energy-water-nexus.”

Scheibe works for the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) in Richland, WA. The BRIDGES Cohort stopped by the PNNL campus to learn more about the research being done by Scheibe and his colleague James Stegen. These scientists study the hyporheic zone of the river – the zone where river and groundwater interact and exchange – along the Hanford 300 reach of the Columbia, a stretch of the river highly influenced by upstream dams.


Scheibe and Stegen use a vast monitoring system to help model the complex interactions of water exchange and microbial activity occurring in the Hanford 300 Reach. The data they collect helps them understand how the flow and shape of the river interact with organisms to influence how nutrients move through the hydrological system.

PNNL is part of the Worldwide Hydrobiogeochemical Observation Network for Dynamic River Systems (WHONDRS), which allows citizens to participate in science research by collecting local water data. The WHONDRS initiative uses citizen science as a way to further understand the river’s biological and physical processes. Citizen science also represents an opportunity for Tribal Nations, since many Native American communities do not have the manpower nor infrastructure to adequately monitor local river conditions. After wrapping up at PNNL, the BRIDGES crew visited the Yakama Nation to learn about water resources, agriculture, and aquatic life on the reservation.


Tom Ring, a self-proclaimed ‘time immemorial’ hydrogeologist for the Tribe, and Paul Ward, the Director of the Yakama Fisheries Department, walked the Cohort through a complicated history of how development and industrialization had altered the natural landscape of the Yakama Nation. Ward emphasized the goal of restoring tribal lands to their original state.  “It’s important to do what is right for the river and what is right for the species,” Ward said. 

The Wapato Irrigation Project, brimming with downed trees and debris due to the heavy snowmelt, feeds the largest irrigation district in the state.

The day’s journey took the BRIDGES crew through the reservation to two major irrigation diversions on the Yakima River, the Wapato and Roza. The Wapato Project is equipped with large, barrel-shaped fish screens that deliver juvenile fish trapped in the canal back to the Yakima River. At the Roza Dam fish ladder, technicians measure, tag and document every fish that comes their way, with some are sent back to the river and some relocated for use in the Cle Elum Hatchery upstream.  Just beyond the research facility, water roared over the concrete dam structure and into the Roza canal. This water eventually ends up irrigating thousands of acres in the Yakima valley.


The Cohort’s last stop of the day was Black Star Farm to learn about hop farming in the Yakima Valley. Ben St. Mary discussed how his water rights, market fluctuations and labor costs all contribute to management decisions on the 800-acre farm. He talked through the process of growing hops, from starting each individual plant up the trellis by hand, to harvest and drying for distribution. As we finished our conversation, we all took a moment to marvel at the little green vines that would flavor future beers.


There’s a clear tension in the CRB between water for Ag and water for fish. The Yakima Valley is impressive for it’s verdant, sweeping cropland. It’s agricultural value is on par with certain growing regions in California. But the hills beyond the green expanse betray the reality here: there’s little rainfall, and all that grows depends on the the Basin’s surface water and groundwater. That means most irrigators are hard pressed to give up any of their share. Representatives from the Yakama Nation expressed some optimism that former foes to instream flows were starting to come around to cooperation among stakeholders. After decades of fighting and arguing over water rights, the only way forward seemed to be to sit down and hammer out a deal.

Day Two: Neutrons & Irrigators

The BRIDGES Cohort continues down the Columbia, with water, energy and food in their sights.

BRIDGES Crew emerges unscathed from the Columbia Generating Station outside Richland, WA.  The energy produced here accounts for 10% of the state’s supply and could power a city the size of Seattle.

On their first full day exploring the WEF issues of the Columbia River Basin, the BRIDGES Cohort got to tour the guts of a nuclear power facility and dissect the obstacles and opportunities to efficient water use in the Yakima Basin.

The day began driving through sagebrush scrubland, past the Hanford site and into the high security complex surrounding the Columbia Generating Station.  Columns of evaporating steam rose from the plant’s cooling towers as a group armed guards checked our state IDs and searched our vehicles.

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We met with Energy Northwest tour manager Kevin Shaub (pictured below) to get an overview of the facility and a primer in nuclear energy production. Heat from nuclear fission  is used to boil water into steam that spins turbines on a generator, producing electricity that is delivered to the Northwest power grid. In 2016, the Columbia Generating Station produced the most electricity for the region in its 32-year history, squeezing nearly 9.6 million megawatt hours from a few pounds of uranium fuel.

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Columbia Generating Station by the numbers:

  • The plant provides electricity to approximately 1.5 million people annually
  • One pellet of the uranium fuel used by the generating station (approximately the size of a pencil eraser) is comparable in energy generation potential to 149 gallons of oil or 1,780 pounds of coal
  •  95% of each spent fuel pellet can still be viably used for future energy production, but infrastructural and economic factors make it more feasible to store these pellets rather than recycling them
  • The 3-million horsepower Generator turbines spin at 1,800 rotations per minute
  • Every minute in the energy production process, 14,000 gallons of water evaporate in the cooling towers
  • Total Columbia River flow past the plant is about 179 million gallons per minute
  • The plant became commercial in 1984 and its operating license expires in 2044 (There’s the possibility for a 20-year extension to 2064 if it makes economic sense for the region)


Within the reactor facility, the concrete walls and ceilings are girded everywhere by chrome and color-coded pipes. The whole complex teems with busy workers of every stripe, from skilled laborers to highly-trained engineers to support staff. Our guide, Carl Golightly, a navy submarine veteran who has worked 22 years at the plant, walked us through various areas, including a look at the reactor pools where staff were removing and replacing a fuel rod. The BRIDGES Cohort came out of the tour with a fresh perspective on nuclear energy and some insight on how it fits into the WEF Nexus.


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Trainees Nick Thiros and Brian Stampe listen to Troy Peters from Washington State University’s Irrigated Agriculture Research Extension Center.

From the Columbia Generating Station, the BRIDGES Cohort traveled to Horse Heaven Vista to meet with Troy Peters, an Ag Engineer working on improving irrigation efficiency in the Yakima Basin. Peters described the Low Elevation Spray Application (LESA) systems he has been pushing to growers in the Basin. By modifying sprinkler systems to spray closer to the ground than they normally would, and by decreasing the spacing between nozzles, implementers of LESA systems can irrigate more efficiently. LESA systems can run at lower pressures, meaning that they both save water and reduce the quantity of energy required for irrigation system operation. Peters also talked about the need for more water storage and taking better advantage of the Columbia’s seasonal flows.


Peters highlighted food-energy-water complexities and tradeoffs in irrigation. The Basin is flush with irrigated fields boasting high value crops. Fruit orchards and viticulture are big industries in the area for the select few lucky enough to have water rights. The Basin exemplifies the paradox between the value of water and its actual cost. The astonishingly low amounts of annual rainfall (6 inches annually) make the area heavily reliant on water from Colombia River. Irrigators rely on water inputs, yet the cost and legal structure leave little incentive for growers to conserve.


Day One: Down the road to the CRB

From Mountain Time to Pacific, from evergreen woods to arid plateaus, from roiling headwaters to the wide expanse of the Columbia, the BRIDGES Cohort came across three state lines today to begin their dive into the water-food-energy nexus.


In Richmond, WA, the trainees met up with Tony Grover  from the Northwest Power & Conservation Council. Over dinner and drinks, students talked with Grover about the myriad of issues surrounding the management of water, fisheries and hydropower on the Columbia River.


Grover used an analogy of a boxing ring full of sumo wrestlers to describe the various stakeholders at play in the CRB. Each wrestler is struggling for advantage in the rink to fulfill their water wants. But, at the end of the day, they take off their boxing gloves and celebrate their kid’s birthdays together. They’ve built a longstanding culture of stagnation in the rink so that when a newcomer joins the ring — say, with a promising, new idea on water allocation — the wrestlers rally together to knock the idea out before it ever gets off the ground.


“We’re living in the world of 1930s dam creators,” Grover says. He often refers to it as a “concrete straitjacket.” Moving forward, Glover says you could apply these thoughts with hope or dejection for the future. Grover is in the hopeful camp. He welcomed us to consider what we would build today if we hadn’t built dams. Perhaps, Grover suggested, this line of thinking will help us develop ideas that will empower the 22nd century.



The Fish and Wildlife Division of the Northwest Power & Conservation Council dedicates a significant amount of time and resources to understanding the challenges that face many endangered fish populations in the CRB. “There’s so many [fish] populations we ignore because we can’t afford to look at them,” Grover says. This is due to the attrition associated with catching and releasing these vulnerable fish stock. Despite the good intention, just by tagging juvenile fish stocks there’s a chance we can loose precious fish and a very real chance the fish species won’t be able to recover the loss.





Roll On Columbia, Roll On

The BRIDGES Cohort is embarking on a three day exploration of WEF issues throughout the Columbia River Basin. They will be posting daily reports and photos from their experience on this Blog from May 13th through 17th. Stay tuned!

The Columbia River Basin is the lifeblood of the Pacific Northwest and the relationship between water, energy and food along the river and its tributaries is complex, conflicted and ever-evolving.

  • The Basin’s natural capital produces $198 billion in value annually, in food, water, flood risk reduction, recreation, habitat, aesthetic and other benefits
  • Hydropower in the Basin accounts for nearly a third of all U.S. hydropower production
  • Water from the Columbia and its tributaries irrigates 5.1 million acres
  • The Basin supports several anadromous fish species and a multitude of  native and non-native resident fish species

The BRIDGES trainees have spent the past semester researching a range of topics on the Basin and presenting their findings.

Here are some trainee-developed summary fact-sheets regarding WEF topics in the Columbia River Basin:

Nuclear Energy and Water Use in the Columbia River Basin

Agriculture in a Changing Climate 

Water Quality in the Columbia River Basin

Water Security in the West and the Yakima Basin Integrated Water Resources Management Plan

Top Photo Credit: Alex Demas, USGS (PD)


Meet the BRIDGES Cohort



University of Montana trainees in the water-energy-food (WEF) Nexus are exploring WEF issues throughout the Columbia River Basin. They bring together different academic backgrounds, personal interests and their own particular expertise to better understand and communicate social-relevant science.

From May 13th – 16th the BRIDGES Team will be posting daily to this blog on their experiences traveling along the Columbia River.

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Emily Eaton

Department: Economics, MA

Food Energy Water Focus: Impacts of energy development on ranchers and rangelands

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Luke Fisher

Email: Email
Department: Geosciences, PhD

Food Energy Water Focus:  Quantifying environmental impacts of large hydro-power dams across the world

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Jordan Gilbert

Email: Email
Department: Geosciences, MS

Food Energy Water Focus: River and floodplain restoration approaches and effects on water and agricultural resources

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Anne Harney

Email: Email
Department: Environmental Studies, MS

Food Energy Water Focus: Decision making and perceptions of the food-water nexus under climate change

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Jordan Jimmie

Email: Email
Department: Resource Conservation, MS

Food Energy Water Focus: Traditional food sources and water rights

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Michael Kernan

Email: Email
Department: Economics, MA

Food Energy Water Focus: Sustainable energy and agricultural development

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David Ketchum

Email: Email
Department: Systems Ecology, PhD

Food Energy Water Focus: Hydrologic and water balance models to support resource planning, policy development, and decision making

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Naomi Neal

Email: Email
Department: Environmental Studies, MS

Food Energy Water Focus: Irrigation planning for agriculture impacted by the changing climate

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Kaitlin Perkins

Email: Email
Department: Systems Ecology, MS

Food Energy Water Focus: Water quality impacts of agricultural land use practices and policy

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Kristin Sleeper

Email: Email
Department: Forest and Conservation Sciences, PhD

Food Energy Water Focus: Governance and adaptability at the nexus

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Adam Stikney

Email: Email
Department: Forestry, MS

Food Energy Water Focus: Efficacy of climate information for agricultural decision-making

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Brian Stampe

Email: Email
Department: Geosciences, MS

Food Energy Water Focus: Hydrological modeling of water resources for agriculture

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Nicholas Thiros

Email: Email
Department: Geosciences, PhD

Food Energy Water Focus: Tracing byproducts of the energy industry through groundwater systems

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Beau Baker

Email: Email
Department: Journalism, MA

Food Energy Water Focus: Water resource management and food security


Alisa Wade

UM Bridges Program Coordinator

Email: Email
Department: Geosciences, PhD

Food Energy Water Focus: