Here’s what the Albany-Santiam Canal looked like through the fence at Ninth Avenue on the evening of July 31. Want to see what it looked like without the fence?
Get up close enough so the camera peers past the wire in the chain link barrier, and you see:
Maybe it’s just me, but as a scenic attraction in the Monteith Historic District, the canal looks better this way. And as the 2001 urban renewal plan proposed, it could become a major asset in Albany’s livability if the city wanted to make it one.
It is, of course, more than a potential scenic attraction. It’s also one of the two sources feeding the city’s water system, the other one being an intake on the Santiam River near Scravel Hill. And then, during the winter and spring when the flow in the South Santiam near Lebanon allows, the canal also powers Albany’s 500-kw generator in the historic Vine Street powerhouse.
Albany has a federal hydropower license covering the generator, the 18-mile canal and the headworks on the South Santiam above Lebanon. Keeping up with the regulatory requirements linked to that license is expensive. I don’t know how expensive, but it’s more than what’s warranted by the $80,000 a year on average in power sales.
One choice facing the council before too long is to abandon power production. But the need to maintain the canal as a water source would remain.
For more than a year now, Albany has worked on another option: Surrender the power license but at the same time obtain from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) what’s called an exemption for a small-conduit hydroelectric facility.
The goal, Albany project manager Mark Yeager reminded me, “is to have the ability to continue to operate the hydroelectric facility much as we do now without including all the requirements related to FERC jurisdiction over the canal, dam, fish screens and head gates.”
He and others have been working on this alternative with state and federal agencies for more than a year. In March 2017, the city council allocated up to $90,000 for outside legal and other professional services. Yeager says expenses so far are well below that.
Drafts of the applications — to surrender the power license and get the small-conduit exemption — should be finished soon, Yeager says, after which the city will again seek the consent of state and federal fisheries agencies. The council then will have to decide on whether to proceed. How soon? Nobody knows.
When this process is over, maybe it will be easier to do something to enhance the downtown leg of the canal. For starters, the city could take down the barbed wire. If the canal itself is no longer a federally regulated energy facility, perhaps the city council will be more inclined to improve its looks. (hh)