Ron Cole and staff are on the verge of launching an audacious idea that would go a long way toward easing the perennial water problems of the oldest national wildlife refuge established for waterfowl.

Cole is the project leader at Klamath Basin National Wildlife Refuge Complex in southern Oregon and northeastern California. In cooperation with Michael Noonan, a local green energy entrepreneur/organic farmer/conservationist, Cole and staff are analyzing a plan to build a small–but–efficient geothermal steam power plant on the southern edge of Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuge.

Proceeds from energy produced by the plant, which is awaiting completion of an environmental assessment and formal approval of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service leadership, would offset refuge power costs to move water for the benefit of wildlife, waterfowl in particular.

While putting such a facility on refuge land might seem incompatible with conservation, Cole explains that it will further the refuge’s mission and assures that “the plant won’t be built unless the conservation benefit to the refuge is clear.” Further, he says, the refuge is rigorously following National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) procedure “and conducting our environmental due diligence every step in the process.”

Why It Is Necessary

Lower Klamath Refuge, which was established by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1908, is 50,092 acres of intensively managed shallow marshes, open water, grassy uplands and croplands that provide feeding, resting, nesting and brood–rearing habitat for waterfowl and other birds along the Pacific Flyway.

Water in the Klamath Basin has become a precious commodity, though, and obtaining it and moving it has become much more expensive in recent years for at least two reasons.

The first is that water distribution is overseen by the Bureau of Reclamation (BOR), which delivers it through canals that crisscross the huge two–state basin. But BOR’s Klamath Project has just one legislated purpose—agriculture. As a result, Lower Klamath and other basin refuges get water only after BOR meets its legal obligations to, in order, endangered coho salmon and American suckers in the Klamath River, tribal trusts and 20 agricultural irrigation districts. “We’re last in line,” says Cole. “We get water through windows of surplus, what is left over after all legal obligations are satisfied.”

So, the refuge complex must use what little water it gets efficiently. Which leads to the second issue. Since a 50–year reduced–rate agreement with Pacific Power expired in 2006, the cost of moving water to replenish wetlands at Lower Klamath Refuge and nearby Tule Lake Refuge has risen almost thirtyfold—from 33 cents per acre–foot to more than $9.

The geothermal steam plant would alleviate both problems.

How It Would Work

The geothermal plant would be built and operated by Noonan’s company, Entiv Organic Energy. The plant would extract hot water from an underground aquifer via one well, run the water through turbines to produce steam power, re–inject the slightly cooler water back into the aquifer via a second well, and sell the power to a utility, probably Portland General Electric.

Ongoing revenue from sales would be paid to a refuge Friends group, which would use to the money to offset refuge power costs to move water aggressively for the benefit of wildlife.

The entire project came about largely by accident because, during a severe basin–wide drought in 2001, Lower Klamath Refuge drilled three wells about 3,500 feet apart in search of cool ground water for wetland use. Instead, the wells led to an aquifer of water ranging from 150 to 210 degrees.

The project is feasible, financially and environmentally, because those wells exist. Financially, the major expense of well drilling already has been paid. Environmentally, refuge land near the wells already has been disturbed, so further disturbance will be minimal.

The project is feasible technologically because it will use new low–water–temperature, high–water–volume technology developed by Technip, a multinational energy company with which Noonan and Entiv do business. Entiv plans to build at least two other similar plants on private land in the basin. Together, the plants will be the first in the United States using the new technology. There are currently three other plants in the world using it—in Iceland, Germany and Japan.

“Locally Driven Solution”

Cole says the endeavor, which has the backing of the Klamath tribes, numerous conservation partners and Siskiyou County, California, could be operational by early 2014. If it is, he says, “the plant will showcase geothermal technology” for the refuge and the entire basin.

“This is a locally driven solution” to a persistent water–distribution problem, says Noonan. “I don’t want to be a power company; I just want to offset costs” of moving water on organic farmland and, as a friend of conservation, “fold in the refuge.”