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Hydropower: USACE Manages the Nation’s Liquid Assets

While the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) proudly traces its history back to Col. Richard Gridley’s appointment as Gen. George Washington’s first engineer on June 16, 1775, its work with the nation’s waterways has become its most visible legacy. In addition to flood risk management, maintaining waterways, recreation, and environmental stewardship, the USACE hydropower mission is an integral part of the nation’s foundation.

Since the early 1800s, Soldiers and civilians have developed and maintained the canals, roads, and river passages that helped an expanding nation on the move. When technology brought electricity to cities and towns in the 1880s, the increasing demand for power encouraged the search for new sources of electricity.

In 1925, the River and Harbor Act tasked USACE and the Federal Power Commission to research the costs of surveying navigable rivers where power generation could be feasible. The Columbia River, flowing between Washington and Oregon, was prominent among the 10 rivers identified in the report.

Construction began in 1934 on Bonneville, the first federal Columbia River dam authorized by Congress. President Franklin D. Roosevelt officially dedicated Bonneville Dam in 1937, less than four years after excavation began. Since Bonneville began operating, USACE has constructed 75 powerhouses at multipurpose dams in 15 districts in the northwest, southwest, and southeast regions of the country. The powerhouses generate 21,000 megawatts of generating capability.

“The USACE hydropower mission is one of the few significant federal capital investments to generate a revenue stream,” said Kamau Sadiki, USACE national hydropower business line manager. “Hydropower assets generate about $4 billion to $5 billion annually in gross revenue to the government.”

Four power-marketing administrations (PMAs) were created in the 1930s and 1940s to market and distribute power to nonprofit and public organizations such as rural electric cooperatives and municipal utilities. While a small amount is sold to for-profit agencies, the mission of these PMAs is to provide low-cost energy to non-profit organizations, known as preference customers.

The four PMAs, Bonneville Power Administration (BPA), Southeastern Power Administration, Southwestern Power Administration, and the Western Area Power Administration, together with their regional partners, work with USACE to fund some of the infrastructure repair and replacements for the 353 generating units in powerhouses across the nation.

“Much of our infrastructure is nearing the end of its equipment life cycle,” Sadiki said. “The capital improvements programs undertaken by the PMAs are helping to improve and sustain reliability of a critical resource.”

The program allowed USACE to completely upgrade Bonneville’s original powerhouse; Wilmington District expects the major rehabilitation program at the John H. Kerr Powerhouse to be completed by summer 2012.

“Bonneville’s first powerhouse had been operating for 50 years and was showing cumulative effects of age,” said Don Erickson, Portland District’s Bonneville Powerhouse 1 major rehab project manager. “The new turbines are not only more efficient, [but] they were designed with new technology that decreased fish mortality.”

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