Another Benefit of Hydro: Cleaning up the Skagit River

Each year, Seattle City Light personnel take part in a two-day effort to remove trash and other debris from the Skagit River in Washington. The utility has three hydroelectric projects on this river: 159-MW Diablo, 179-MW Gorge, and 450-MW Ross. As a result of this cleanup program, which began in 2006, more than 11,100 pounds of materials have been removed from the river. This is comparable to the weight of two full-sized pickup trucks.

Establishing the cleanup program

The Skagit River is considered a jewel of the Pacific Northwest for the beauty of its emerald green water, fish and wildlife it supports, recreational opportunities it provides, and hydroelectric facilities it powers. As it flows from its headwaters in British Columbia, through the North Cascades National Park and Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest to Puget Sound, the Skagit River provides critical habitat for endangered fish and wildlife. It is the only river in Washington that supports every type of salmon, including endangered chinook, steelhead, and endangered bull trout. It also supports the largest U.S. population of bald eagles outside Alaska, along with endangered spotted owls and marbled murrelets.


Volunteers remove trash and other debris from the Skagit River in Washington during the annual Skagit River Cleanup. These efforts have resulted in removal of more than 11,100 pounds of refuse from the river over the past four years.

In addition, those waters allow Seattle City Light’s three Skagit River hydro facilities to provide about 17 percent of the electricity for the municipally owned utility’s 390,000 customers.

Seattle City Light’s sensitivity to this precious resource is written into the utility’s vision, mission, and values statement, which reads: “Seattle City Light is a publicly owned utility dedicated to exceeding our customers’ expectations in producing and delivering low-cost, reliable power in an environmentally responsible and safe way. We are committed to delivering the best customer service experience of any utility in the nation.”

In 2006, Blue Sky Outfitters organized the Skagit River Cleanup as a small event of rafting guides and a few friends. The company started the event with the goal of improving the environmental quality and scenic beauty of a river where it offers whitewater rafting and bald eagle float trips.

When personnel with Seattle City Light and the Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest learned of the event in 2007, they quickly joined in as sponsors because of their shared interest in protecting and enhancing the river. U.S. Forest Service officials then recruited Skagit County Public Works to support the project by waiving fees for dumping trash removed from the river.

Performing the cleanup work

In 2007, the first year Seattle City Light participated in the cleanup, about 25 employees joined in, helping to pull about 4,000 pounds of trash from the river. In 2008, about 30 Seattle City Light employees participated, to help collect 3,600 pounds of debris. Snow and cold weather hurt turnout in 2009 and limited the cleanup to one day, but 13 volunteers from Seattle City Light still helped remove more than 1,500 pounds of trash from the river and its banks.

Over the past four years, volunteers have removed a variety of trash from the Skagit River, including an office copier, washing machines, and building materials. Removing this debris protects salmon spawning grounds and other habitat from oil, chemicals, paint, and other detrimental substances. It also makes the river more visually appealing to visitors.

“It all counts,” says Seattle City Light fish biologist Dave Pflug. “Obviously, the fish are better off with the trash out of the river. And keeping the river clean influences other people to try and keep it that way.”

The 2009 Skagit River Cleanup took place on March 14 and 15. The event is scheduled each year for the weekend before the annual start for Blue Sky Outfitters’ new guide training sessions and before the company gets busy with a new rafting season. The 2010 cleanup is scheduled for March 13 and 14.

The 2009 cleanup efforts focused on a 20-mile stretch of the river between the cities of Marblemount and Concrete, Wash. This stretch includes Howard Miller Steelhead Park, one of the most popular spots for steelhead fishing in Washington. The 2009 cleanup also touched a small section of the Sauk River, which joins the Skagit River near Rockport, Wash.

Participants included 25 hardy volunteers in total, consisting of employees from Blue Sky Outfitters, Seattle City Light, and the U.S. Forest Service, as well as relatives, friends, and community members. Some participants paddled in rafts guided by Blue Sky Outfitters to reach cleanup spots. A few brought their own boats. Others walked the banks to clear debris.

Because most of Seattle City Light’s employees work in Seattle, more than two hours from the cleanup site, the utility provides transportation and lodging in Newhalem. This is a utility-owned town that provides housing for workers at the three Skagit River projects.

Among the more unusual items participants found in 2009 was a VCR, a crash helmet, a basketball hoop, military surplus parts, an oven, and a 1970s Chevy pickup that was stranded on a gravel bar in the middle of the river. While volunteers could not haul out the entire truck in their rubber raft, they did remove the grille, horn, and headlights. Another group even found half of a green canoe. There was no sign of the other half.

After four years of cleanups, the difference is easy to see, said Phil Kincare, river manager for the Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest. The upper reaches of the Skagit River above Marblemount, where the event focused its work the first three years, are nearly devoid of visible trash, he said.

Results and lessons learned

The Skagit River Cleanup has grown steadily during its four years, with each partner bringing important resources to the project without significant cash costs. Blue Sky Outfitters provides the rafts, and its guides oversee cleanup crews on the water. Seattle City Light and the U.S. Forest Service each provide a truck and jet boat to assist raft crews in unloading the trash and hauling it to the dump. Seattle City Light and Blue Sky Outfitters promote the event to their employees and the public through multiple communication channels, including employee newsletters, videos of the cleanup work, online outreach, and e-mails.

The cost for Seattle City Light has been minimal. The utility allows its equipment to be used and provides lodging for workers and their relatives. Three to five employees have led the effort for planning and promoting the event, recruiting volunteers, and coordinating logistical arrangements. That work is accomplished within their regular schedules. The hard costs associated with the event include food and T-shirts for volunteers, gasoline for vehicles, and printing for fliers. Combined, those costs have been less than $2,000 per year.

While the biggest beneficiary of the cleanup is the environment, each of the partners is reaping rewards in the form of enhanced community and employee perceptions and team-building among employee volunteers. In an online employee “Pulse Poll,” about a quarter of Seattle City Light workers said the cleanup was the utility’s best community outreach event. And Seattle City Light employees consistently comment about how much they enjoyed the event and look forward to next year.

The local communities are appreciative as well. Community sign boards have touted the amount of trash collected and offered thank yous to cleanup participants. And one coffee shop provided free drinks and cinnamon rolls to volunteers.

– By Scott Thomsen, senior strategic advisor, Seattle City Light

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ANOTHER BENEFIT OF HYDRO: Taking Hydropower to Schools

Avista Utilities, headquartered in Spokane, Wash., has been conducting tours of its eight hydroelectric plants for students for more than a century. Over the years, tour conductors have offered one common observation — students almost universally had no background in hydropower and had a poor grasp of what they were seeing and how the plants worked.

In 1995, the utility (formerly known as Washington Water Power) developed a pilot project for the “It’s Hydrological” program, which began in earnest three years later. Today, the program involves 60 to 70 classroom presentations to 1,500 to 2,000 students each year, as well as 50 to 60 plant tours. By hearing a classroom presentation — usually about a week before participating in a plant tour — students get far more out of the field trip experience than without pre-tour preparation.

The “It’s Hydrological” program

The “It’s Hydrological” program began with three goals:

— Increase understanding of hydro generation to make tours more beneficial;

— Educate students about the benefits of hydro as a low-cost, non-polluting, renewable energy source; and

— Transmit information about public safety around dams, particularly near spillways and intake areas.

The classroom presentation demonstrates how dams produce hydroelectric power. An Avista employee presents the program in classrooms throughout the company’s service territory, which covers more than 30,000 square miles. The utility owns five hydro plants in Washington, two in Idaho, and one in Montana, with a total capacity of almost 1,000 MW.

During Avista Utilities’ “It’s Hydrological” hands-on classroom program, students use a scale model hydroelectric system to generate electricity and light up appliances in a model home. They learn how hydro plants produce electricity, the pros and cons of hydropower, and how to be safe around dams.

The one-hour, hands-on classroom presentation includes elements of math, physics, and social studies. It features an aquarium-size, three-dimensional scale model of a complete hydroelectric system, including a miniature hand-crank generator. The model, which is made of metal and plastic, contains no water. Instead, turning the hand crank simulates the turbine rotating the shaft and spinning the generator. To illustrate “peaking power,” the model shows the need for more electricity production when additional electrical appliances are used.

The presenter describes the water cycle (from condensation to evaporation) and renewable versus non-renewable sources of electricity generation. While the presentation primarily highlights the many benefits of hydroelectricity, the presenter addresses both positive and negative effects of hydroelectric generation, the controversial salmon issue, and fish mortality caused by passing through turbines.

Avista Utilities coordinates 50 to 60 hydroelectric plant tours a year for students as part of the “It’s Hydrological” program.

Another discussion topic is the difference between conductors and insulators. A favorite question to the students is, “As you grew up, you all learned that water and electricity don’t mix. For example, Joe here might take a bubble bath while he listens to a hard-wired CD player or MP3 amplifier plugged into an electrical outlet. If he puts the CD player on a shelf above the bathtub and the CD player falls into the tub, Joe is going to have a very BAD day. So, if water and electricity don’t mix, then how can we actually GET electricity from water at a dam, without the whole system going POOF, just like Joe?” (Answer: students learn that it’s the generator, not the turbine, that actually produces electricity; unlike the turbine, the generator never touches the water, and insulators keep the electricity from passing back into the turbine.)

The presentation also includes an interactive slide show and a question and answer session. During the slide show, students see pictures of turbine runners and generator windings, as well as examples of warning buoys, boater safety cables, and public safety warning signage. The presentation concludes with student “hands-on” operation of the hydro model and several clear plastic “generator flashlights” that use a circular magnet that spins between two coils of copper.

After the classroom presentation, most classes take a field trip to an Avista hydro facility. The most impressive tours occur during the spring run-off, when students get scenic views of the cascading river passing through (or over) dam spillways. About 80 percent of the student tours occur at the 15-MW Post Falls plant in Idaho, about 9 miles downstream of Lake Coeur d’Alene at the source of the Spokane River, and the 10-MW Upper Falls plant located 28 miles downstream in downtown Spokane, Wash. These two facilities have few stairs, making them more accessible to visitors than other plants. The author conducts some tours, and plant operators conduct the rest. Avista allows visitors to take photos and videos inside and outside of the two plants, and photos of Post Falls’ 1906 vintage (and still operating) generators are especially popular. For security reasons, Avista restricts tour photos at its three large facilities: 466-MW Noxon Rapids, 265-MW Cabinet Gorge, and 71-MW Long Lake.

Some teachers prepare for the presentation by scheduling it after a classroom unit on electricity. Some learn along with their students. Overall, about 60 percent of the teachers do some kind of prep work, and some teachers do follow-up with post presentation/tour assignments on renewable energy.

Developing the program

During a trial-and-error development process in school classrooms, Avista employees noticed a marked difference in attention span and comprehension between third and fourth graders. As a result, they decided to offer the presentation and tours only to students in fourth grade and above.

In addition to classroom trials, planners worked with area teachers to develop a “hydro pop-up,” a paper cut-out model of a dam, for all students attending a presentation.

The “It’s Hydrological” program is low cost, since Avista hires no additional employees to implement it. Aside from the original cost for the hydro model (about $3,000 from Dunau & Associates, a communication and marketing consultant in Spokane), the only expenses are transportation costs for the presenter and about $10 per class for handout materials (including the hydropower pop-up). Generator flashlights are purchased online from Edmund Scientific for about $15 each.

Classroom teachers schedule a program by contacting the utility. Teachers can learn about the program through a link on Avista’s Internet site,, but most of the presentations occur via word-of-mouth. The utility incurs no advertising or publicity expense. Avista pays for program costs out of its Environmental Affairs Department budget.

Reaching out

Although most presentations are for students in grades four through six, Avista schedules about ten sessions a year with older students. In 2006 and 2007, the company conducted a two-hour presentation to freshmen and sophomores at Spokane Falls Community College, as part of a combination English/Physics class.

During summer months, teacher workshops at the Northwest Natural Resource Institute and Project WET, two environmental education groups, include an adapted version of the program. That way, teachers outside the Avista service area (who aren’t eligible for the presentation) can pass along the hydro message to their students.

The “It’s Hydrological” program has met its goals. The program continues as an ongoing part of Avista’s community interaction efforts. The program is popular with participating teachers, and about 90 to 95 percent of them request another presentation the following year. In addition to the positive public relations benefits, the presentations and tours educate students about the necessity of using renewable, low-cost, non-polluting resources like hydropower. “It’s Hydrological” also augments Avista’s public safety program by showing students the proper precautions to take, both when dealing with electricity and when fishing, boating, swimming, and camping near dams. The program could be beneficial to any utility seeking additional corporate goodwill and wishing to inform students (future stakeholders and customers) of the benefits of hydropower generation.

— By David J. Ayres, hydro safety & security coordinator, Avista Utilities


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