The millions of gallons of water in the mighty Columbia River are a valuable resource that serves many purposes in the Pacific Northwest — hydropower generation, fish and wildlife habitat, fish hatcheries and agricultural irrigation. The challenge, however, is to manage the river system in such a way that balances and optimizes the river's numerous uses.
Pacific Northwest National Laboratory is beginning to tackle that challenge by developing an integrated and focused management process that links natural resource management with electricity generation, transmission and distribution systems.
"It's a natural extension of our work," said Rick Skaggs in the Laboratory's natural resources group. "Some of the same conditions that affect the timing and abundance of water availability for the hydro system also affect the demand for water for other uses including power generation."
Researchers at Pacific Northwest have been studying the connection between fish passage and power production at hydroelectric dams for decades. "We use science and technology to track fish upstream and downstream of dams to understand the conditions in the aquatic system," Skaggs said.
Some of the Laboratory's ongoing activities include:
Deploying an acoustic camera at Columbia River dams to assess its potential for studying fish behavior. Originally developed by the University of Washington for the Navy, the camera provides detailed underwater images that could be useful in evaluating fish bypass measures.
Modifying the sensor fish, a simulated salmon that made its first splash in 2000, measuring the conditions that real fish encounter at hydroelectric dams. The new version will be small enough to embed in a real fish to collect more accurate data.
Developing hydrodynamic models of water flow, temperature and oxygen content.
Conducting watershed-scale and in-stream natural resource assessments.
Applying climate variability and climate change models to evaluate how climate will impact the potential for hydropower production and competing needs for water resources.
As part of the Laboratory's internally funded Integrated Natural Resource Management Initiative, researchers are developing the Adaptive Management Platform that integrates physical, ecological and economic process models to enable decision-makers to make robust, reliable decisions in the face of uncertainty.
California's power crisis in early 2001 brought national attention to the critical relationship among power, water and environmental quality. During the crunch, water from reservoirs — a precious reserve — was sent through the turbines of Columbia and Snake River dams in Washington and Oregon to produce electricity and send it south.
At the same time, however, the region's low snow pack increased the need to manage the rivers' in-stream flow to support salmon protection and recovery measures required by the Endangered Species Act. Farmers, who rely on the same water for irrigation later in the year, faced water shortages and potential crop loss. Researchers at the Laboratory are hoping that their work can help federal, state and local agencies in their challenge of meeting these competing needs in the coming decades.
"We're extending our tools and capabilities to provide integrated management of natural resources and hydropower generation," Skaggs said. "As we connect physical and biological process models to provide distributed modeling linked to management processes, decision-makers can better understand and balance the potential outcomes — and trade-offs — of river operation alternatives."
The Laboratory has been working with the U.S. Department of Energy's Office of Science, the Bonneville Power Administration, the Washington Department of Transportation and others on aspects of this approach.
For BPA alone, improvements in water resource systems analysis, risk management, information management and regional climate-based forecasting could help reduce the more than $400 million annual price tag on costs associated with fish and wildlife measures, lost revenue from reduced power production and purchasing replacement power.
"We plan to develop and demonstrate our capabilities in the Northwest, but ultimately these concepts will be applicable throughout the United States and internationally," Skaggs said.
The Department of Energy's Office of Science is the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States and is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time.