Ice Harbor awaits fish-friendly turbine parts

By Kevin McCullen, Herald staff writer March 17, 2010 

BURBANK -- A replacement part for an aging turbine at Ice Harbor Lock and Dam could serve as a prototype of a new turbine design that federal managers hope provides safer passage for fish, officials said Tuesday.

A $10.9 million contract awarded by the Army Corps of Engineers to Voith Hydro of York, Pa., will pay for research and development of a replacement runner for a turbine at the dam on the Snake River near Burbank.

A runner is the portion of a turbine that rotates in the water to generate power.

"It's specifically being developed with fish passage in mind. The hope is that the one at Ice Harbor is successful, and we can then use it at other dams," said Gina Baltrusch, spokeswoman for the Corps' Walla Walla District.

There are about 30 aging turbines at dams on the Columbia and Snake rivers that may need to be replaced in the next 20 years, said Michael Milstein, a spokesman for the Bonneville Power Administration, which is funding the project. Turbines at five dams are at least 45 years old, he said.

The need to replace the runner unit in the Ice Harbor turbine prompted officials to look at new ways to create a design with fewer potential harmful effects on fish.

"Our mission includes more than just generating power; it includes environmental stewardship of the nation's natural resources," Witt Anderson, director of programs for the Corps' Northwestern Division, said in a statement. "We want to take advantage of technology that wasn't around when the dams were constructed and design the most advanced runner available to help improve fish passage in the region."

Fish passing through a turbine can be killed or injured by hitting stationary or rotating objects, or become pinched in a small gap, according to information in the solicitation for the contract to design the new prototype.

Turbulence can direct fish into objects or cause it to lose equilibrium or become disoriented, making them susceptible to predators.

And low pressure or high rates of pressure change also can injure or kill fish. Officials hope the new design will essentially eliminate many of these hazards.

Engineers from Voith Hydro and federal agencies will work together in the design process, using computer modeling and tests with physical models to examine water flow and pressures, according to the Corps.

The new turbine components are targeted for installation and operation at Ice Harbor by 2015.

It also will help meet goals of the 2008 federal biological opinion that protects wild salmon and steelhead listed as threatened or endangered, officials said.

"It will take more work on the front end," said Mark Jones, BPA's manager of Federal Hydro Projects. "But we'll pave the way for upgrades at dams all through the Federal Columbia River Power System that provide the Northwest with renewable power."

-- Kevin McCullen: 509-582-1535; kmccullen@tricityherald.com

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