A River Runs Through It

Hydroelectric dams kill fish, destabilize ecosystems, and make
it hard for river-dependent Native American tribes to get three
squares a day. Concerned activists, stymied by an unsympathetic
Bush administration, are swimming upstream just to get more
‘ladders’ to help fish navigate the locks. But according to
OnEarth (Spring 2005), a mechanical engineering
professor at Northeastern University in Boston has successfully
tested a turbine so efficient in generating energy that it could
one day eliminate the need for these environmental hazards.

OnEarth reports that professor Alexander Gorlov’s
helical turbine, a device that’s 100 inches long and resembles ‘an
oversize beater from an old hand-held mixer,’ can harness kinetic
energy from any body of moving water, including canals, open
oceans, and rivers. So-called free flow hydropower costs about
$1,500 per kilowatt, roughly the same as wind power, and the
whirling turbines can harness up to 3,000 gigawatts of power, which
is 97 percent more efficient than any other current power source.
Preliminary tests also indicate that, given space, fish will swim
around the whirling turbines.

The Republic of South Korea installed a Gorlov turbine and plans
to order thousands more from a manufacturer in New Jersey, but the
U.S. government has not shown much enthusiasm for the invention,
save for a research and development grant in 1990. That’s a shame,
since there are many places in the United States where an
alternative way to generate hydroelectric power could be
beneficial. One is the Pacific Northwest’s Klamath-Trinity
watershed, where, EcoNews (April 2005) reports,
there has been a drastic decline in the number of endangered wild
salmon due to dam-related diseases and low water flows.

Though the outlook for the Klamath River is grim (this year
could be one of the driest in the basin since 1961), there are
plenty of forward-thinkers who, like Gorlov, are working to make a
difference. Nature Conservancy (Spring 2005)
reports that for the first time in more than 180 years, the
Neversink River in the Catskill Mountains is flowing freely. That’s
because last October scientists and activists braved floodwaters to
help dismantle the Cuddebackville Dam, causing brook trout and
American shad to quickly swim some 40 miles away from where they
had been trapped.

There’s also a push under way to remove unused or crumbling
dams. The Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit American Rivers says
that 60 dams were removed in the United States in 2004, which is
double the number demolished in 2003. Most municipalities,
understanding that dams often cost more to repair than to destroy,
have been eager to see them go. When the Embrey Dam on the
Rappahannock River was demolished in February 2004, onlookers
cheered wildly. It’s a good guess that the newly freed fish were
pleased as well.


The Gorlov Helical Turbine
San Antonio-based GCK Technology owns the patent to the Gorlov
helical turbine.

American Rivers
This environmental nonprofit runs a campaign to remove dams that
don’t make sense.

Watershed: The Undamming of America (CounterPoint
Press, 2002)
Journalist Elizabeth Grossman explains why many of America’s 75,000
dams need to be demolished.

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