"The technology itself is ready to be deployed," Vince Bryan, CEO of Whooshh Technologies, told a crowd of about 100 people who gathered to see the company's fish passage system in operation at the base of Chief Joseph Dam.
This quote stuck with me as I drove home from the Whooshh Passage Portal demonstration on Sept. 10, where Colville tribes' leaders said they had always been told it was impossible to bring salmon back to the upper Columbia River, while company officials explained how their Whooshh Passage Portal could safely do the job.
The technology is there. It just needs more studies, more testing, and then funding and the political will to make it happen.
On a larger scale, the potential of this system—which is easy to install and remove and far less costly than a permanent fish ladder—has important ramifications, not only because it can bring anadromous fish back to areas where they've long been blocked by dams, but for reducing the world's carbon emissions.
The company claims—and studies back them up—that salmon and steelhead using the now-famous Whooshh passage system spend less energy, and can travel faster and farther to their spawning grounds than fish traveling past dams through fish ladders.
At hydroelectric projects where fish ladders are already installed, using a Whooshh Passage Portal instead would eliminate the need to divert 5 to 10 percent of river flow into the ladders, Bryan said. That water could then be used for other purposes, such as irrigation, juvenile migration or sent through turbines to generate more carbon-free energy. Think of how much new electricity would be available if that much more water went through turbines across the world.
In addition to this potential for improving adult fish passage, much engineering work has gone into improving the design of turbines to reduce impacts to juveniles migrating downstream.
Earlier this year, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers started operating a new turbine at Ice Harbor Dam that is expected to increase Unit 2's power generation by 3 to 5 percent, while improving the survival rates of juveniles passing through the turbine. Corps spokesman Joseph Saxon told me recently that fish passage testing will occur from late September through October. "We anticipate reductions in blade strikes and pressure changes resulting in an increase in passage survival," he wrote in an email. With nearly 20 years of research, the new turbine design will be used to replace a second turbine at Ice Harbor, and more turbine replacements at both Ice Harbor and McNary dams may follow.
A company in Alameda, Calif., has also developed what it calls a fish-safe turbine for smaller dams. An article published by the American Society of Mechanical Engineers says that initial testing of Natel Energy's new turbine design found that all fish up to 20 centimeters (7.9 inches) long passed safely through the turbines at a dam with a 5-meter (16-foot) head, while 98 percent passed safely through at a dam with a 10-meter (32-foot) head.
The ASME article points to this 2012 report by the U.S. Department of Energy, titled, "An Assessment of Energy Potential at Non-Powered Dams in the United States." These are dams built for purposes other than hydroelectric generation that currently are not generating electricity.
The report notes that in addition to the 2,500 dams that provide 78 GW of electricity and an additional 22 GW of pumped-storage energy, more than 80,000 dams do not produce electricity. DOE analyzed more than 54,000 of them, and found nonpowered dams have the potential to add up to 12 GW of new energy—and two-thirds of that potential could be tapped by adding hydroelectric generation at 100 dams. Eighty-one of those dams are Corps facilities, the report says.
Natel Energy plans to install one turbine at a dam on the East Coast this winter, and is commissioning another on the West Coast for mid-2020. "It is looking for commercialization partners and wants to work with existing turbine manufacturers to scale the technology globally," the article says.
Whooshh Technologies is much further along in its development of safe upstream passage. The company's innovations have undergone numerous studies since 2011, including a recent evaluation by Pacific Northwest National Laboratory finding the Whooshh passage system successfully sorts and transports adult salmonids, with a passage rate approaching 100 percent once fish enter the system.
The study found no significant injuries to fish using the Whooshh system, and the minor injuries observed were less than in a control group, suggesting long-term effects are likely minimal. The study also noted Whooshh's volitional entry system requires a series of behavioral events—fish need to detect it, enter and ascend, prior to encountering the transport system. PNNL suggested an ideal study would directly compare the performance of Whooshh-transported fish to those using a conventional fishway.
Whooshh systems are now being used to transport fish over dams in Europe and the U.S., including the 165-foot-high Cle Elum Dam in the Yakima River basin.
At Chief Joseph Dam, Bryan explained, the transport system works by putting about 1 pound per square inch of additional pressure in the tube behind the fish, compared with the pressure in front of it.
In addition to the fish tube, a Whooshh barge is stationed at the base of the dam, where the fish are attracted to a small ladder before entering the tube voluntarily. A scanning system takes six pictures of the fish from different angles, and when programmed, it can differentiate and sort out different species, or wild and hatchery fish. The fish are then "whooshed" through the tube at about 25 feet per second.
The entire process, including the 1,000-foot journey from the barge in the dam's tailrace to the top of a nearby hillside and back down to the tailrace, takes less than a minute, Bryan said. They are being sent back to the tailrace because agencies are not yet ready to approve sending them over the dam.
The system set up at Chief Joseph Dam will not only test the system's ability to travel over high-head dams, but will also gather additional images of Chinook so the scanning system still recognizes summer and fall Chinook that have passed through nine dams to reach the upper Columbia.
Bryan said the Chief Joseph Dam tailrace is a good location for testing, since no ESA-listed fish are present when summer and early fall Chinook arrive. But even with no endangered species to consider and no plans to release fish on the other side of the dam, it took several months to get the necessary permits. The last one came through from the Corps a few days before the Sept. 10 demonstration. By then, most of this year's summer Chinook run was over.
The Herculean effort required coordination with or permits from numerous entities, including the Corps, the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, NOAA's National Marine Fisheries Service, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
These two technologies appear to offer vast potential to help resolve some of the biggest issues still facing the hydroelectric industry, and to address some of the growing demand for more carbon-free power. One obvious pitfall, however, will be incorporating these innovative, private technologies into the hydropower industry, where so many dams are under federal control, and the wheels of change can move slowly