McNary Dam shows guts

White water cascades through spillways at the McNary Dam on the Columbia River. E.J. Harris/for The Hermiston?Herald

Visitors can get an inside look at McNary Lock and Dam during an open house from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. July 19.

Park rangers and operations staff at the dam invite the public to join them for a variety of tours, educational programs and activities during the event. The guided tours will include an up-close look at a hydroelectric generator inside the powerhouse, the navigation lock, the Washington side fish-viewing room, the juvenile fish facility and the Pacific Salmon Visitor Information Center.

Through human ingenuity, McNary Dam has harnessed the power of the Columbia River to produce hydropower, study fish behavior, transport goods and provide recreational opportunities.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers operates and maintains eight dams within its Walla Walla District, including McNary Dam, approximately one mile east of Umatilla off Highway 730.

Hydropower is channeled through 14 turbines in the dam's powerhouse, with the capacity to generate 1,000 megawatts. One megawatt would equal the power of approximately 800 microwave ovens.

In 2007, Randy Ryan, the dam's operations manager, said operating costs were about $15 million for the year. And by May of 2007, the dam already had generated $45 million worth of power.

Nearly half the power used in the Pacific Northwest is obtained through hydropower. Other sources include coal, combustion turbines, cogeneration, imports, nuclear and non-utility generation.

Joe Saxon, a public affairs team leader with the Corps, said hydropower is clean, renewable, reliable and efficient.

A multi-million fish program is operated by the Walla Walla District to assist juvenile salmon and steelhead as they migrate to the Pacific Ocean. The juvenile fish are transported over, around and through the dam on their journey downstream.

The fish are aided by a juvenile bypass system, which includes fish screens to keep them out of turbines in the powerhouse, routing them onto collection facilities or guiding them back into the river below the dam. Others are collected and transported to an estuary below Bonneville Dam in barges and trucks.

Although the turbines rotate at 85.7 revolutions per minute, fish are minimally impacted. Ryan likens it to a fish going through a revolving door, not a blender.

Using the technology of tracing devices, physical counting of fish and floating transponders near the spillways means virtually every fish is accounted for.

Use of the navigation locks enables more efficient transportation of goods than trucking. One barge's load capacity would equal between 120-134 semi-trailers.

Not only can more tonnage be moved by barges, but at a cheaper cost. Approximately 2,000 gallons of fuel are needed to ship cargo from Lewiston, Idaho, to Portland by barge. The same amount of cargo shipped by rail would require 5,000 gallons of fuel and by truck, 17,000 gallons.

Recreational activities offered on Corps land include fishing, boating, hiking, picnicking swimming and observing wildlife. Additionally, park rangers are available to answer questions about interpretive displays and provide water safety programs.

Whitetail deer, beavers, badgers, coyote and birds make their home in the area.

"Activities and displays are planned to interest children of all ages - even the grown-up ones," said David McDermott, natural resources manager at McNary Dam.

Visitors can choose what they want to see and do during the open house. Those interested in the Washington shore fish-viewing room and the navigation lock should check-in at the north entrance of the dam on the Washington side. Visitors who want to participate in a powerhouse tour, the juvenile fish facility, equipment displays and kids activities should check in at the powerhouse gate on the Oregon shore.

Visitors need to wear closed-toed, sturdy shoes while touring work areas of the dam. No purses, bags, cameras, briefcases and similar items are allowed in secure areas of the dam.

Call 922-2268 for more information.

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