There’s little appetite for big new dams in the United States. While hydro provides undeniable benefits, particularly in the Pacific Northwest, that power comes at costs that were either not understood or were simply ignored in the heyday of dam building (check out Cadillac Desert and/or A River Lost for more on that).

But improving existing dams to make them better power producers and at the same time less harmful to fish and other natural resources? That kind of thing – as recently occurred Washington state – could well be worth the investment.

cushman dam
Cushman Dam No. 2 during upgrade work in fall 2012 (image via Wikimedia Commons)

According to the U.S. Department of Energy, the agency and the city have inaugurated a new powerhouse and fish passage facility at Tacoma Power’s Cushman Hydroelectric Project that will add enough capacity to power 2,000 more homes while reintroducing steelhead and salmon to their native habitats.

“Upgrading America’s hydroelectric facilities presents one of the best opportunities to increase our supply of clean, renewable energy and provide consumers with affordable, reliable power,” David Danielson, assistant secretary for Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, said in a statement. “By partnering with local communities and utilities, we can take steady, responsible steps that protect the environment and deploy every source of American energy.”

The Cushman Dam No. 2 was built way back in 1930 on the North Fork of the Skokomish River. It’s 575 feet long, 235 feet tall and 8 feet wide at the top and 40 feet wide at the base. Construction of the dam created a reservoir, Lake Kokanee, that is two miles long.

It also created a big hurdle for fish – one that has now been made less daunting, according to the DOE.

This will help the fish. Learn more here. (image via Tacoma Public Utilities)
This will help the fish. Learn more here. (image via Tacoma Public Utilities)

The project “added an innovative elevator and transportation system to reintroduce Washington’s endangered steelhead and salmon populations upriver from the Cushman Hydroelectric Project for the first time since the 1920s,” the DOE said. For full details of how this system works, check out this page on the Tacoma Public Utilities website.

The project cost $28 million project, and a small portion – $4.7 million in Recovery Act money – came from the DOE as part of its efforts to take advantage of “the best near-term opportunities to sustainably increase the American supply of clean energy.”

The power payoff comes courtesy “a new two-generator powerhouse that increases electric generation capacity by 3.6 megawatts and captures energy from previously untapped water flows,” according to the DOE.

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