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PNNL balancing complex environmental issues

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March 01, 2004 Share This!

RICHLAND, Wash. — Whether you get your power from its dams, water your crops from its irrigation systems, fish for salmon from its banks, or buy products that were shipped through its ports, you are participating in one of the complex environmental issues that affect the Columbia River Basin. At the Department of Energy's Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, our scientists and engineers are driving science to solutions to sustain the Columbia as a vital regional resource and help balance environmental quality with competing needs.

PNNL research on the Columbia is helping to maintain a balance between environmental quality and energy security provided by our hydroelectric dams. Because water coming from the spillways of dams can literally give fish the bends, PNNL researchers calculated dissolved gas concentrations that were used to determine impacts to juvenile salmon migrating within the Columbia and Snake River systems. PNNL researchers used sophisticated models to predict Columbia River flows, including velocities, temperatures, and dissolved gases that were factored into operating changes for some hydropower dams, lessening environmental impacts to fish and aquatic environments. They also developed new sensors to better understand what happens to fish when they pass through turbines. The information collected from the PNNL "sensor fish" as it slides through the turbines helps determine what hydraulic conditions contribute to fish mortality and what approaches can reduce injuries to the fish. A miniature tag glued to the beaks of birds that snack on young fish as they emerge disoriented from their swirling trip through the turbine is providing information on where, when, and how many fish are eaten. The PNNL-developed device allows wildlife managers to plan more effective predator control mechanisms.

At the mouth of the Columbia River, where dredging to deepen the shipping channel is proposed, PNNL researchers are providing information that will help maintain the balance between environmental quality and transportation goals. PNNL studies of the effects of dredging on Dungeness crab are being used to plan measures to mitigate dredging impacts. PNNL scientists also developed a new type of acoustic sensor that can "hear" tagged fish as they swim toward the ocean. The information will allow researchers to understand what habitats fish use and when and where dredged material may be placed to mitigate impacts to crucial habitats. Finally, the passage of ships through the channel creates a wake that can strand migrating juvenile salmon on the shoreline. In an ongoing study with the University of Washington, PNNL researchers are developing new techniques to cost-effectively measure and mitigate the effect of these wakes on stranding.

PNNL research is providing information to accelerate Hanford cleanup while protecting the Columbia River from contaminated groundwater on the Hanford site. In addition to an ongoing environmental monitoring program, scientists recently developed new information about many of the harmful chemicals in the groundwater. They determined how strontium-90 and uranium move through the subsurface and the soil so the Department of Energy could accelerate cleanup of waste tanks that pose the highest risk for groundwater contamination. They also developed new information to improve models that predict the movement of carbon tetrachloride in the subsurface and conducted experiments to determine the uptake of technetium-99 by rainbow trout. PNNL studied the demand for recreation activities on the Columbia and the associated economic expenditures made by recreation participants visiting the river. Results of their work will help DOE keep the Columbia River safe as Hanford cleanup proceeds.

PNNL research is helping decision-makers better understand the effect of global climate change on the complex river system that fuels our regional economy. Over the next 50 to 80 years, for example, PNNL-developed regional climate models predict a 38 percent reduction in snowpack with a higher likelihood of wintertime flooding. Our researchers, working with the University of Washington and Washington State University, also have provided new information on the potential effects of El Nino and climate change on irrigated agriculture and the regional economies in the Yakima Valley and the Tri-Cities. This information will aid decision-makers in water resource planning for agriculture, energy production, transportation and recreation in the future.

PNNL is committed to drive science to solutions to help maintain the Columbia River Basin as a sustaining resource. Through continual development of new technology and more accurate predictions, PNNL will help resolve the complex environmental issues facing this key resource.

The Columbia River and its major tributaries:

  • Provide hydroelectricity for 14 million people from 400 dams
  • Provide 70 percent of the total electric generating capacity of Washington, Oregon, and Idaho
  • Provide a home for seven species of Pacific salmon and numerous other plants and animals
  • Carry 17 million tons of cargo each year
  • Irrigate 7.8 million acres of land.

Tags: Energy, Environment, Fundamental Science, Hydropower, Energy Production, Climate Science

PNNL LogoPacific Northwest National Laboratory draws on signature capabilities in chemistry, earth sciences, and data analytics to advance scientific discovery and create solutions to the nation's toughest challenges in energy resiliency and national security. Founded in 1965, PNNL is operated by Battelle for the U.S. Department of Energy's Office of Science. DOE's Office of Science is the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States and is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, visit PNNL's News Center. Follow us on Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn and Twitter.

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