The Buffalo area may find itself capitalizing on the awesome power of the Niagara River in a new way, thanks to federal plans to study the feasibility of a new small-scale hydroelectric facility along the river.
Congress is finalizing action on a huge water resources bill that, while setting plans for dams and other waterways nationwide, also authorizes $500,000 to research a possible "low-head" hydropower facility somewhere along the river.
"In Western New York, we have been blessed with the tremendous natural resource that is the Niagara River," said Rep. Louise M. Slaughter, D-Fairport, who included the study in the Water Resources Development Act.
"I have been working for many years to encourage a feasibility study on establishing a low-head hydro generating facility on the Niagara River, and I am pleased that this study was able to be included," she said. "I look forward to seeing the results."
"Low head" hydro facilities don't involve building huge dams to create a drop of water used to generate electricity, as many hydropower plants do. Nor do they require construction of gigantic facilities such as the Niagara Power Project.
Instead, they can take a variety of less-obtrusive forms, including a small dam that would create a short drop, or simply a turbine or multiple turbines that rely on the natural flow of the river to generate some electricity.
While it's unknown where such a facility might be located, Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo, said it's possible water wheels could be installed at the base of the Peace Bridge.
"It's said to not disrupt the flow of the river and could be installed onto the structure that's already existing," he said.
Nevertheless, there are many doubts and questions about Slaughter's proposal.
"This would be an oddball study for us," said Phil Berkeley, chief of the planning branch at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in Buffalo. "Whether it's practical or not is anybody's guess."
Berkeley said such a facility couldn't involve a dam of any kind and would likely have to rely on the river's natural flow to produce electricity. Such a facility would obviously produce a minuscule amount of electricity compared with the Niagara Power Project, which produces as much power as 2 1/2 nuclear power plants.
Meanwhile, Julie Barrett O'Neill, executive director of Buffalo Niagara Riverkeeper, said her organization had been trying to find out details about the project. She said it conceivably could pose issues for the river's fish habitat.
O'Neill said she was pleased, however, at another provision that Slaughter got included in the water resources bill: an authorization for a restoration and conservation plan for the Niagara River.
"This will provide us with the opportunity for the region to look at the Niagara River and pull together all the information about it and do a report on the condition of the river itself," she said.
The bill is likely to become law because the House on Tuesday overwhelmingly overrode President Bush's veto of it, and the Senate is expected to do the same. Even two loyal Bush supporters from Western New York, Reps. Thomas M. Reynolds, R-Clarence, and Randy Kuhl, R-Hammondsport, voted to override the veto.
However, under the two-step funding process, the hydro study and every other project in the bill will need approval again in an appropriations bill.
"A good 50 percent of these things never get funded," Berkeley said.