Out of a flood comes an innovative filter

Hood River’s Farmers Conservation Alliance springs from FID efforts to help fish

In 1996, a historic flood turned the Hood River into a muddy torrent that wiped out roads, rail lines, and a portion of the Powerdale Dam facility.

Farmers Irrigation District, which today provides irrigation water to 5,800 acres of land in the Hood River Valley, also was unable to escape the wrath of the once-in-a-generation storm and saw almost all of its infrastructure, including fish screens, destroyed.

FID took the opportunity to make proverbial lemonade out of lemons and rebuild its infrastructure, as well as develop a new, more efficient type of fish screen that prevents debris and organic material from clogging irrigation intakes, while ensuring fish swim through unharmed.

Seventeen years later, the fish screens developed by FID have been installed in locations all over the Pacific Northwest and are poised for installation in other areas around the country — and around the globe.

Farmer’s Conservation Alliance — a Hood River nonprofit created in 2006 to specifically market, sell, and install the fish screens — recently received $1 million in funding that will help the fish screens “move out of the experimental phase and have a more widespread reach,” according to FCA’s executive director, Julie O’Shea.

“The funding allows us to do the outreach, to do the sales and the marketing to get the screens in the ground,” O’Shea explained.

The money came from a $100,000 grant from the Meyer Memorial Trust and a $900,000 “program-related investment” from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation.

The screens are used at sites where water is diverted from rivers and streams for human use. The screens act as filters, catching organic materials and debris while allowing fish to swim through and return to the river.

Fish screens themselves aren’t new technology, but FID’s screen represents a departure from the fish screens of yore. O’Shea said FID’s old screens laid vertical to the flow of water, causing the filters to clog and sometimes make it difficult and unsafe for salmon and other fish to pass. After the floods of 1996, FID developed a new, horizontal screen. Water diverted from the river drops through tiny holes in the horizontal screen, where it is sent off to be used for irrigation, while fish and most debris flow over the screen and are returned to the river.

After years of testing and clearing a litany of permitting hurdles, the new fish screen was finally approved by the federal government in July 2011. Today, O’Shea said 27 screens have been installed at points of diversion along rivers and streams around the Pacific Northwest.

The screen improves on more than just protecting fish and filtering debris though. Jer Camarata, district manager for FID, said the screen is mostly self-cleaning, which cuts down significantly on maintenance costs.

“It used to cost $90,000-$100,000 annually to maintain these things. And now?” he said and held up his hand, making a zero with his thumb and forefinger.

At FID, the fish screen is used not only to prevent fish and debris from entering the irrigation system, it’s also a way for FID to filter out material before it reaches the intakes of its off-river hydroelectric plants. The plants use water diverted from FID’s irrigation channel and generate over 24 megawatts of power annually and make up nearly three-quarters of FID’s revenues.

Genevieve Scholl-Erdmann, outreach manager for FCA, said the fish screen’s use at FID’s hydropower facilities is one of the many examples of how the technology can be utilized outside of irrigation.

“It could be helpful for fish hatcheries, municipal water, storm water,” she said. “We’re trying to figure out all the applications and user groups.”

Currently, FID, which holds the patent to the fish screen, receives about $15,000 per year in royalties from the sale of fish screens via the licensing agreement with FCA, while revenues are used by FCA to “benefit solutions for fish and farms,” according to Scholl-Erdmann. That number stands to rise though in tandem with the demand for the fish screens.

“The market’s huge,” Camarata noted. “There are several hundred thousand unscreened diversions in Oregon alone.”

O’Shea agreed and said there has been interest from outside the U.S., specifically Australia and New Zealand, in the fish screens. She expected the fish screen would be “all over the west” in three years and would hit international outlets in five years.

For more information and a video of the fish screen in action, visit FCA’s website at www.farmerscreen.org.

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