Another Benefit of Hydro: High-Tech Treasure Hunt

Visitor centers at large hydro projects in the U.S. nearly became an endangered species after 9/11. Fears about additional attacks on critical infrastructure led to restricting public access to many hydro projects, putting visitor centers in jeopardy. But thanks to increased security measures, the visitor centers at the Grand Coulee, Chief Joseph and Rocky Reach hydro facilities were able to remain open to the public.

The three project owners worked to create a logo that is awarded as an embroidered patch to D3 Tour participants who visit each of the plants.

The challenge, however, has always been in attracting more visitors so the compelling story of clean, renewable hydropower can be told to as many people as possible. And although tour guides and staff with the U.S. Department of Interior’s Bureau of Reclamation (owner of 6,809-MW Grand Coulee), the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (owner of 2,620-MW Chief Joseph) and Chelan County Public Utility District (owner of 1,300-MW Rocky Reach) had cooperated informally in the past to encourage visitors to stop at each other’s projects through community events related to safety, fish and conservation, an effort involving significant cooperation and collaboration had not been tried previously.

AJ Jensen,with the Corps, called Debbie Gallaher, Visitor Services Manager at Rocky Reach, and proposed the idea of an educational partnership with the intent of increasing visitor numbers at the three projects. Jensen and Crystal Baughman with the Corps (Chief Joseph Dam) and Lynne Brougher (Grand Coulee Dam) met with Gallaher at Chief Joseph Dam in the early winter of 2011 to discuss ideas that would work for all three projects. The outcome was an educational geocache project.

Two visitors at Chelan County PUD’s Rocky Reach Dam use a GPS unit to search for one of the hidden geocache boxes.

Cache-ing in

Visitor center staff members had voiced a desire for cooperation and collaboration for years, but no single project had been found that could easily, uniquely and effectively link all three. Because each of the three hydro projects has extensive publicly accessible grounds where visitors can picnic and enjoy the outdoors, the idea of hiding educational clues outdoors seemed like it would offer a good opportunity to show off the projects and provide a free, fun and family-friendly activity.

Chelan County PUD employee Mike Lawson had extensive experience in geocaching — a high-tech educational treasure hunt that directs participants to hidden clues using GPS devices or smartphones — was invited to join the planning team and to help establish the steps and procedures that could make the experiment a success.

The team included Lawson, the managers of outreach/education programs at the dams, an information officer and a graphic designer. He was able to guide the planning committee through the work needed to qualify the sites for inclusion on the international geocaching website, GeoCaching.com. He also understood what kind of prize would help inspire geocachers to visit all three projects and would be eagerly sought.

With about 100 miles of highway travel between the Rocky Reach project on one end and the Grand Coulee facility on the other, with Chief Joseph in between, getting people to contemplate visiting all three hydro projects was a challenge. Including America’s largest hydro project, Grand Coulee and its highly-touted laser light show in the geocaching program would be a boost for the other two sites, and the location of Rocky Reach along the highly traveled Cascade Loop Highway system linking western Washington with eastern Washington offered another point of initial contact for many summertime visitors to the area.

Preparing for the hunt

Many meetings were held before naming the program “The D3 Tour Geocache Challenge” and developing a logo that would go on a patch awarded to participants who visited all three projects.

Another challenge was learning the details and formal protocol of geocaching from its many enthusiasts and making the experience at the three hydro projects conform to their requirements so it could be included on GeoCaching.com.

The team also had to decide how to make geocaching available to people who might not be familiar with it and who might not have the proper equipment. The decision was made to purchase a number of GPS units — seven at Rocky Reach alone — that would be loaned to people who did not have proper equipment or did not have smart phones with the right capabilities. Explanatory written materials had to be developed, and guides had to be trained in how to coach people through the process once the activity was launched on Memorial Day weekend in 2012.

Publicity about the activity was developed using a news release to regional media, and information was placed on the geocache site, federal agency and Chelan County PUD websites. The activity was also promoted on Rocky Reach Dam’s Facebook page. A kickoff picnic was also held at Chief Joseph Dam to focus attention on the starting weekend.

The staff at Rocky Reach said geocaching can be done very inexpensively, with the total money invested by Chelan County PUD coming to about $2,000.

47.5° N, 120.3° W marks the spot

The intent of the D3 Geocache Challenge was to help visitors discover the hidden treasures of hydropower production and other essential facts about the role dams play in the Pacific Northwest.

Visitors at Rocky Reach Dam, for example, followed coordinates to find geocaches filled with interesting tidbits about the dam and its history. People who visited each geocache found an educational activity sheet highlighting the features and benefits of the dam, including hydropower generation, flood control, irrigation and recreation, as well as information about the Columbia River.

Those visitors successfully locating the geocaches at all of the dams were rewarded with discovering both similarities and differences between the dams.

The D3 Geocache Challenge brought nearly 300 people to the area, many for the first time, to discover aspects of these features that may easily be overlooked.

“Our family philosophy is that there’s a story and adventure around every corner, and boy did you prove it,” challenge participant Tonillee Hanson said. “I never used a GPS before, much less used it for a treasure hunt. Better yet, I learned more about the Columbia and hydropower while having fun.”

According to the Chelan County PUD staff, the majority of the geocachers that came to Rocky Reach had never been there before and were amazed at what they saw and learned.

Those finding all the caches at Rocky Reach receive a collectable coin, a photograph and a commemorative frame. Chief Joseph and Grand Coulee also offer prizes for geocache participants.

Charting newer territory

Participation in the D3 program has increased each year, and it has inspired other Foundation for Water & Energy Education members to introduce geocaching programs of their own.

The geocache tour has grown from the pilot trio to include 13 projects in the Pacific Northwest, allowing visitors to discover the hidden treasures of hydropower production and other essential facts about the role dams play.

“This is a great way to get people to your project to learn about clean, renewable hydro,” said Christy Shearer, deputy public information officer for Chelan County PUD. “Initially, their sole purpose was to geocache, but they then discovered that there was so much more to see once they got here. People have been amazed to discover this beautiful hydro project and all that we have to offer. It’s been a great experience for all of us.”

— By Debbie Gallaher, visitor services manager, Chelan County Public Utility District

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