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BPA comes to the rescue for utility customer, millions of young fish
3/16/2017 12:00 AM
BPA crews at Bell Substation readied a 115/34.9-kilovolt transformer to hit the road to answer an emergency at Clearwater Power in north central Idaho. Transporting and installing the unit, which measures 35 feet long and 13½ feet high, cost $60,000.
With its workforce, expertise and equipment, the Bonneville Power Administration is primed and positioned to make a difference in the Northwest. As it has shown so often in its 80 years of service, when the call is urgent, Bonneville gets the chance to do what it does best.
The following story – involving time-sensitive teamwork across the public power, transmission, and fish and wildlife communities – is one example of BPA swinging into action to help partners around the region in an emergency.
Steve Rodgers was home in north central Idaho one weekend night in November when he got the kind of emergency phone call nobody wants to receive.
As he set off in his truck for the eight-mile drive down the hillside overlooking the Clearwater River to the large fish hatchery he helps manage, he saw a complete sea of blackness in the populated canyon below.
“There was not a light on anywhere; not in Ahsahka, or Orofino, or Riverside, or at the dam or hatchery complex,” he says. “It was kind of eerie, almost apocalyptic.”
In fact, it might be similar to how it looked in autumn 1805, when Lewis and Clark camped there, near the confluence of the Clearwater River and its North Fork. “Ahsahka,” or the place where two rivers meet in the language of the Nez Perce, has been a renowned tribal fishing site since time immemorial.
Two hundred years later, fish are still the heart and soul of this picturesque slice of Idaho. They are sacred to Northwest tribes and highly prized by angling enthusiasts who support the north central Idaho tourist economy.
Nobody needed to tell Rodgers, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s complex manager for Dworshak National Fish Hatchery, what an 1805 level of electricity could mean for the irreplaceable young fish being raised there. No power at a mega-hatchery that relies on electric pumps to provide water to the fish – with limited generator backup – meant the 4.5 million juvenile salmon and steelhead could be lost.
“Every generation of fish growing at this hatchery is critically important,” Rodgers said. “They represent the future, and the years of work by tribal, state and federal governments to preserve them. The genetics they carry are unique to the North Fork, and cannot be lost.”
On this November 2016 night, the next generation of salmon and steelhead had been raised from 2015’s “eggs with eyeballs” into sleek 14-month-olds the size of a hand. Very soon, in early spring, Dworshak’s unique class of 2017 would be released to carry the hopes of a salmon-loving region down the Columbia River 500 miles to the sea. Two years later, thousands of these fish would swim back from as far away as Alaska to their cradle in the Clearwater River as robust, exceptional adult spring chinook and steelhead.
One of the largest of its kind in the world, Dworshak National Fish Hatchery raises endangered steelhead and chinook salmon on the Clearwater River near Orofino, Idaho.
“This hatchery is one of the largest of its kind in the world,” Rodgers says. “It’s the cornerstone of tribal and sport fisheries in the Clearwater Basin.
“What’s most special about it, in my mind, is that it’s the home of the Idaho ’B-run’ steelhead. These fish are much larger than other steelhead stocks. I’m looking at a male mounted on the wall in my office that’s 40 inches long and 23 pounds. That’s an impressively large fish, given all the energy he expended to swim here from the Pacific.”
When Rodgers pulled into the hatchery that night, his Nez Perce Tribal and USFWS employees were racing the clock to restore power and move water around the sprawling complex of outdoor raceways, trying to stretch the life-giving fresh water.
It was the equivalent of an aquatic CPR operation. Ordinarily, the hatchery’s six massive pumps move 75,000 gallons of oxygen-rich water every minute from the river to the fish, but with the power out, the emergency generators couldn’t support all the pumps.
In the concrete ponds where they typically shoot and scatter like playful silver streaks, thousands of juvenile fish were suffocating, losing their ability to swim, flipping belly up in the tanks. More than 5,500 died that night.
That was a sight Rodgers never wanted to see.
“As those fish start to struggle and turn, that’s a signal that you’re right on the edge of losing the whole program,” he says grimly. “To lose these fish now would be devastating to the region.”
* * * *
When a critical, custom-built piece of electrical equipment dating to the 1970s fails, it’s a problem.
If it’s a 40-ton transformer and you’re a small, publicly owned utility responsible for serving rural electricity customers across three states and two tribal nations, it’s a bigger challenge.
That was the position Dave Hagen, general manager of Clearwater Power Co., was in. “If you stand to lose 4 million fish in a matter of hours, it’s no doubt catastrophic,” he said.
At 9:30 on Saturday night, Nov. 5, a large transformer suddenly failed at Clearwater Power’s Ahsahka Substation near Orofino, Idaho. When Clearwater’s line crew tried to coax it into restarting, it expired altogether.
And that was the beginning of a story that would call upon the resources of a tribe, a local utility and two federal agencies, pulling out all the stops to save millions of precious fish during a power emergency.
* * * *
For four decades, the hulking transformer at Ahsahka Substation – 14 feet high and 11 feet wide – had played an essential role in reducing the high-voltage electricity flowing off the Bonneville Power Administration’s regional transmission grid to a safe level for distribution to homes and businesses near Orofino.
Unfortunately, there’s no local garage or handy traveling repair crew for these electrical units that weigh tons. Transformers are strange beasts, long-lived and capable of operating for the better part of a century, but awkward to move and oddly delicate once hoisted off their foundation.
After being lifted out and sent away on a robust trailer, the repairs take months – and that’s the best case. If a transformer can’t be fixed, a replacement usually has to be built to specification, which can take a year to complete.
In spite of all that, the general manager of Clearwater Power definitely had some resources to draw on. While the hatchery staff were desperately fighting to buy time for their stressed fish, they could see Clearwater’s line crew working in tandem across the river. Calls and support were going back and forth; both sides knew everyone was going flat out to find a fix.
Then the Clearwater Power crew recognized that a backup electrical line, left over from a repair project years earlier, could be pressed into temporary service to share extra power from the town of Orofino with the hatchery. A lifesaver for the hatchery that night, it bought time for Clearwater to seek a longer-term solution.
“We were really lucky with the weather because it wasn’t cold,” Hagen says. “But that could have changed at any time.”
The fix was a godsend, but it was also a stopgap. Once November temperatures dropped and the heaters kicked on in the small town, that surplus capacity being shared with the hatchery complex would be gone in the flick of a hundred thermostats.
The only choice would have been a risky and difficult one – staging an operation to try to load millions of baby fish into trucks and drive them to a temporary billet at other hatcheries, a transfer that posed a host of new perils to the fish.
“Nobody was really sleeping well the next few days,” Rodgers said. “We’d been right on the edge of a major catastrophe and we were thankful we’d saved the vast majority of the fish. But there was still the question of the backup residential feed and generators: What if those 50-year-old generators died? What if winter hit?”
* * * *
It was a white-knuckle situation, but Hagen thought Clearwater Power had a potential ace in the hole that could save those fish – the small utility’s 80-year relationship as a public power customer of the Bonneville Power Administration.
BPA electricians and Clearwater Power linemen worked from before dawn until after dark for several days to get the 38-ton BPA transformer set up and operating at Ahsahka Substation.
“It’s a strong partnership,” he says. “We obviously can’t go to the market and get the potential substation equipment and expertise available to us from Bonneville. That’s definitely one of the biggest values (of the federal power system).”
BPA is a federal nonprofit that markets low-carbon electricity to 142 consumer-owned utilities across four Northwest states, as well as owns and operates 75 percent of the high-voltage transmission system in the region. It serves nearly 500 transmission customers.
“I looked at our contingency plans. We knew BPA had a portable substation in the Spokane area that it could mobilize to support us,” Hagen says.
To protect the reliability of its multi-state transmission system against bad weather, fire and other risks, Bonneville stages a limited backup inventory of different-sized transformers at sites around the region. With each unit worth hundreds of thousands of dollars or more, these special assets are held in reserve for emergency use on BPA’s own far-flung system.
“We called all the utilities we know locally to see if we could find one, but nobody else was able to share equipment,” says Doug Pfaff, Clearwater Power manager of engineering. “Most people only have them for their own backup.”
* * * *
When Clearwater reached out on Monday morning, BPA customer account executive Craig Hardin knew Bonneville might have a transformer of the right size.
“It’s cost prohibitive for most utilities to carry a spare and just have it sitting out there,” says Hardin, a former lineman. “We had a spare mobile just waiting at Bell (Substation in Spokane) for someone to have a failure. We don’t have too many of them and were fortunate that we had one.”
He recognized another factor that could work in favor of a plan to lend it out: BPA had just finished updating and streamlining the key legal procedures that enable the federal agency to respond to other utilities’ emergencies.
“We’d just gotten a new mutual-aid agreement executed, and within a matter of 90 days we got to use it,” Hardin says. “In the past, we’d have had to have a reimbursable agreement in place before we could respond. Now you don’t need to do a reimbursable order, you just create a work order and deploy the field people to respond and do the reimbursement down the road.”
It wasn’t easy, with the problem occurring over a federal holiday weekend. But Bonneville’s rigging crew and electricians from Spokane’s Bell Substation and Lewiston, Idaho, found the manpower to come through in the clutch.
“There’s a great and long history of Northwest utilities helping each other when it’s most needed to get the lights back on during a crisis,” says Mark Gendron, BPA senior vice president for Power Services. “Sometimes it has been Bonneville that needs the help, and sometimes it’s our utility customers. We happened to be there to help this time.”
Young fish at the hatchery
How BPA supports Dworshak National Fish Hatchery
Although the relationship with Clearwater Power was primary, other vital facets of BPA’s daily mission and partnerships come into play at Dworshak hatchery.
BPA not only markets the power generated at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Dworshak Dam, it also funds one of the largest fish and wildlife programs in the nation, working with tribes, nonprofits, and state and federal partners to mitigate for the impacts of the region’s 31 federal hydroelectric dams on endangered fish. The Dworshak hatchery receives BPA funding under the Snake River Compensation Plan.
Bonneville is also a regional leader in providing energy efficiency funding and expertise as part of its mission under the Northwest Power Act. Recently, the Dworshak hatchery celebrated the completion of $600,000 of energy-saving improvements supported by BPA, including new water pumps and variable frequency drives.
This year, BPA funded installation of LED lighting in the fish nursery, saving up to 60 percent in energy consumption. LED lighting also benefits the fish, aiding in their development by more closely matching the wavelength, intensity and photoperiod of natural sunlight.
“The partnership between Dworshak hatchery and BPA is strong,” says complex manager Steve Rodgers.
Behind the scenes, figuring out the logistics and a $325,000 contract to lease out a piece of custom equipment drew on members of half a dozen teams in BPA’s Transmission Services.
“The new mutual assistance agreement makes BPA much more agile in our ability to respond rapidly,” says Jared Lacambra, an electrical engineer and former lineman working out of BPA’s Munro offices who helped wrangle the necessary paperwork and personnel to get the transformer on the road to Idaho. “It was really a cross-group effort to get the process in motion to help make everything happen for Clearwater. I’m proud of how quickly our field crews were able to respond, and everyone was pleased at how it all turned out.”
Although Clearwater’s Hagen called the BPA transformer a “portable” unit, that term is relative when you’re talking about something that weighs 22 tons drained. Just to mobilize and install such a valuable, unwieldy piece of equipment cost $60,000 and required the “mega-moving” skillset of BPA’s five-man rigging crew, followed by a team effort of seven BPA electricians working with Clearwater personnel.
“As the provider of power to Northwest customers and stakeholders, we’re here to help,” says BPA electrician foreman Ned Willburn. “We had a customer who came to us for help, and it’s, ‘OK. Here we go.’ ”
Rodgers witnessed their dedication. “Every day, those linemen and electricians were already there working in the dark when I drove into my office in the morning,” the complex manager says. “And they were still there when I went home around 9 at night.”
In less than two weeks, Clearwater Power’s customers – including 4.5 million baby spring chinook and steelhead swimming in oxygen-rich tanks – were back on full power.
“There’s the environmental downside to think about,” says Hardin. “What are 4 million smolts that perish worth? You can’t put a price on that. They were pretty excited about not having to truck the fish out of there.”
He adds, “My heart went out to these guys. This is the kind of stuff that makes our work compelling, to be able to do things we can to help each other.”
Clearwater was thankful for BPA’s assistance. “Had we not had the opportunity to work with Bonneville, we’d still be scrambling and trying to find something, having to look elsewhere across the country to rent something,” Hagen says. “And we know that a transformer rebuild or replacement will take six to nine months. The BPA folks made it all come together.”
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