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Into the Light Oregon/Washington BLM



Into the Light

How the BLM is harnessing the renewable energy of our sun to supply water to Oregon's high desert

story by Tara Martinak
photos by Rob Sharp

A few years ago, I read a statistic about places in the United States (outside of Alaska) with temperatures below freezing for 180 or more days per year. And I bet you're thinking what I'm thinking: who comes up with this stuff? You know what? I don't know. But a quick read showed that my little Harney County town of Burns, Oregon, came in at #5 on the list with an average of 205 below-freezing days per year.

205? Somebody hand me my coat, please.

Fortunately, cold does not necessarily equal cloudy, and Harney County also has a surprising statistic about sunshine: the towns of Burns and Hines proudly boast over 300 days of rays - just as many as Miami, Florida. Give us a disco and a few more celebrities, and I'll bet you can't tell the difference.

So let's pretend I never mentioned the cold weather and, in your best Temptations impression, join me as I sing: "I've got sunshine..."

Get Energized - Solar Style

In addition to our plethora of sunny days, the BLM's Burns District is also no stranger to renewable energy projects. Several wind testing sites currently record data for potential wind power development. There's also a proposal for a wind farm on private land. And biomass projects are already generating power annually through stewardship contracting.

Into the Light
photo by Rob Sharp

But I did mention all our sunny days, didn't I? What renewable energy haven't I mentioned yet? That's right. Solar. There are a number of solar-powered weather stations, portable generators, and wells scattered across the District.

Who benefits from this sun-kissed energy? Would you believe horses? Wild horses in the Warm Springs Herd Management Area (HMA) are actually one of Harney County's most recent beneficiaries of green power.

For the last several years, water sources have been scarce across the Warm Springs HMA. Several seasons of drought and below-average snowpack left all but three waterholes in the 303,000 acre West Warm Springs portion of the HMA dry in 2009.

"Drought," you say? Don't be surprised. Harney County is deep in the high desert where "sunny and dry" are the weather reporter's favorite words. But I digress.

The challenge with the dry weather is that livestock permittees in the West Warm Springs area operate three wells on BLM-administered land with fuel-type generators for one to two months while livestock are on the allotment. However, these water sources go dry once the cows are removed. And cattle aren't the only land users out there. So it made sense to find a way to keep water available in the HMA year-round.

'Scuze Me While I Kiss the Sky

Into the Light
photo by Rob Sharp

With these available wells and water sources, BLM employees who are experienced solar pump and storage system designers met with Bill and Lori Peila along with Geren Moon, willing allotment permittees who paid for well-drilling, metal troughs, and a storage tank. And between everyone's hard work and a boatload of sunshine nearly year-round, they discovered that solar energy proved to be a very bright idea indeed.

Over the last year, the three existing wells were each equipped with a solar-powered energy system that provides a constant supply of water to a trough, a storage tank, and an overflow pond during sunlight hours. Remember when we talked about it being cold and sunny here? Well, here are the brains about this operation: each solar unit is designed to deliver at least eight gallons per minute during a typical sunny day. But then they'll self-drain when not pumping to avoid damage during freezing temperatures.

Bottom line? These systems take advantage of the Miami-like sun we enjoy here in Harney County, but they can also handle those 205 below-freezing days per year! Voila - horses gone thirsty won't be an issue 'round these parts. Nor will used-up natural resources or non-renewable energy because we've got the sun, baby.

Now every story has its pros and cons, so let's put it all out there. Here's the good: 1) solar power helps us maintain the wild horse range during periods of drought thus reducing the need for emergency gathers; 2) solar power provides for additional sources of year-round water which also supplements grazing habitat; and, 3) more available water means improved animal distribution and reduced utilization levels and forage competition. Healthy water. Healthy lands. Healthy animals. Now here's the bad. Ready? Are you sure? Okay. Darn. I can't think of anything.

Over the last year, three wells were equipped with a solar-powered energy system to provide a constant supply of water. And water from the wells provides both horses and cattle year-round sustenance. To read more about the BLM in Burns, Oregon, please visit us online.