Over the last few years, one of the remarkable successes is the record salmon returns to the Columbia River and its tributaries. Conversely, one of the biggest disappointments is low recovery of delta smelt in San Francisco Bay.
To protect the smelt, a federal court ordered water be flushed into the San Francisco Bay – 1.4 trillion gallons since 2008. That was enough water to sustain 6.4 million drought-stricken Californians for six years. Yet, a survey of young adult smelt in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta last fall yielded just eight fish, the lowest level since 1967.
Increasing river flows in the northwest to wash young salmon to sea has worked; nevertheless, once water goes down the river, it’s gone. What if we could recycle that water in key parts of the Columbia River reservoir network?
It’s called “pumped storage.” It works in West Virginia and it could work in the Northwest.
In West Virginia, the Bath County project is the world’s largest pumped storage hydro system, producing about half the amount of electricity generated by Grand Coulee Dam. During peak electrical demand, water flows through power generators draining into a lower reservoir and conversely, during periods of low demand, water is pumped back into an upper reservoir.
The difference in the price of electricity between low and peak usage makes the plant economically feasible and plant operators have the option to power the pumps by substituting electricity from other sources, including wind and solar. That concept may work at Grand Coulee.
For example, during peak electrical demand, generators in Grand Coulee’s third powerhouse alone produce enough electricity to light Seattle. What about capturing that water below the dam and pumping it back into Lake Roosevelt during the late night and early morning hours when electricity demand is slack?
Traditionally, pumped storage is thought of in terms of power production, but sending water back into a reservoir such as Lake Roosevelt would not only increase power production, but the water could be available for irrigation, navigation and augmenting fish runs.
Since, Northwest electric ratepayers already are charged for salmon recovery, perhaps some of those funds could be used to underwrite the costs of pumping.
It may be an approach to consider in the vast Columbia River system, which supports agriculture, salmon and produces 75 percent of our state’s electricity.
In 2000-01, when low stream flows in the Columbia system curtailed hydropower production, this region lost most of its aluminum smelters and the family-wage jobs that went with them as electricity was reallocated to household and commercial use.
Pumped storage could also avert water conflicts such as those occurring in California. As Californians suffer through their fourth year of record drought, hydropower’s share of the state’s total electricity supply has dropped from 18 percent to 12 percent. The deficit has been replaced by natural gas-fired generation, which adds to greenhouse gas emissions.
The University of California at Davis estimates the statewide economic cost of the 2014 drought totaled more $2.2 billion, including $810 million from lost crop revenue, $203 million from lost livestock and dairy revenue, and $454 million from the additional costs to pump groundwater to keep production going. The state has lost 428,000 acres of irrigated cropland and an estimated 17,000 part-time jobs.
Now, Gov. Brown has ordered a 25 percent reduction in water usage because there isn’t enough water for cities, farms and factories.
Rather than put ourselves in the same predicament as California, why not look at alternatives, such as pumped storage because when the pie is larger, there are fewer family fights over a smaller and smaller pie.
Don C. Brunell is a business analyst, writer and columnist. He recently retired as president of the Association of Washington Business. Email him at theBrunells@msn.com.