Power plant operators keep everything safe and sound

A variety of consoles, readouts and video monitors in the control room help power plant operators like Foster Dam’s Jim Williams maintain a big-picture view of what’s going on at and around their dams. (Photo by Scott Clemans, Public Affairs Office)

A variety of consoles, readouts and video monitors in the control room help power plant operators like Foster Dam’s Jim Williams maintain a big-picture view of what’s going on at and around their dams. (Photo by Scott Clemans, Public Affairs Office)

By Scott Clemans, Public Affairs Office

True to form, Rogue River Basin and Willamette Valley Project power plant operators protested when told they were to be profiled in the Corps’pondent.

“We’re recluses,” Lost Creek shift operator John Funke joked. “We just want to stay in our lane and do our job.”

“We definitely try to stay out of the limelight,” agreed Lookout Point shift operator Tim Pierce.

“Due to our schedules, we tend to get left out of social and organizational stuff,” added Lookout Point shift operator Luke Wikstrom.

Well tough luck, guys: After highlighting the District’s Reservoir Regulation Team in December, it’s time to turn the spotlight on the group that takes Res Reg’s water and hydropower orders and turns them into action, while keeping people, property and the environment safe and sound.

“Our main job is to control and operate the dams’ multi-million dollar power generation and flood control equipment,” said Lookout Point senior operator Paul Gallegos.

Power plant operators like Foster Dam’s Jim Williams log and interpret temperatures, flows, pressures and other data to assure a dam’s equipment is running right. (Photo by Scott Clemans, Public Affairs Office)

Power plant operators like Foster Dam’s Jim Williams log and interpret temperatures, flows, pressures and other data to assure a dam’s equipment is running right. (Photo by Scott Clemans, Public Affairs Office)

That means opening and closing spillway gates; regulating outlets and penstock valves; adjusting and monitoring hydropower turbines and their associated equipment; and a variety of other related tasks.

Some of that work can be done from the control room, but some requires the operator to get out into the powerhouse or other parts of the dam.

“We do inspections of equipment, and log temperatures, flows, pressures and other data and interpret them to assure the equipment is running right,” said Detroit shift operator Chad Tschida.

“Data’s important,” Pierce agreed, “but you also need to learn to detect differences in sights, smells and vibrations of a generating unit.” “A lot of what makes a good operator is a mindset thing – you have to want to know more; to be curious about something you see or hear when you’re walking around a dam,” added Wikstrom.

And sometimes a single operator simply can’t do it all – especially at the south end of the Willamette Valley, where nine dams are managed from one control room.

“Roving operators like me go out to the remote facilities to be the eyes and ears of the control room operators,” said Wikstrom.

They also operate dams locally when remote operation isn’t possible.

“For example, we have to go out and manually operate the spillway gates at
most of our projects,” Wikstrom said.

Water releases are usually managed according to Res Reg schedules, but operators have broad authority to ask for schedule changes or take action on their own when necessary, especially because their knowledge of on-the ground conditions is usually better.

“We’re always watching reservoir conditions and how much flow we can manage through our different outlets,” said Funke. “I’ve called Res Reg at 2:30 a.m. and asked for higher releases because the original schedule wasn’t realistic – I knew inflows would go way higher way quicker than the schedule called for.”

Gallegos agreed. “An important part of our job is understanding the big picture – how the releases we make impact the system of reservoirs and rivers, and the people around us. We’re always thinking of public safety.”

In addition to public safety, power plant operators play a key role in ensuring the safety of maintenance and other project personnel, whose work on gates, equipment and hydropower units is essential to the effective operation of the dams.

Before anyone can enter an area to do construction and maintenance work, operators must write and impose a “clearance” – the switching, valving and other actions needed to remove hazardous energy like electricity or water from the work area, and place a boundary around it.

“There really is no room for error with clearances,” said Pierce. “People sometimes call us anal, but we have to be or people can die. We have to double or triple-check ourselves and others or the results can be catastrophic.”

And once the construction and maintenance work is done, operators are integrally involved in making sure the work was done right.

“Commissioning a new or replacement piece of equipment is a real challenge,” Wikstrom said. “We have to test every single system multiple times and ways to ensure it works right.”

Because they have a big-picture view of what’s happening – and because they sit where all the phone lines come together – operators also end up being the communication hub at their project.

“We field a lot of public inquiries, especially from fishermen,” said Funke. “We’re also on the phone a lot providing real-time data to Res Reg, working with police and emergency services that patrol the area, and coordinating with a lot of other agencies, like Fish and Wildlife and State Parks.”

Gallegos said people sometimes don’t realize how many balls operators have in the air at the same time.

“People see us sitting down all the time, so they think we don’t have much to do,” he said. “They don’t understand when they ask for something that sometimes we have 10 other people asking at the same time. We’ll do our best to help – have patience.”

Despite all the challenges – including a rotating work schedule they almost universally loathe – operators love what they do. “It’s a job with purpose,” said Funke. “We’re protecting the public, fish and the environment.”

Operators remember lost colleagues

Willamette Valley Project employees are mourning the loss of two veteran
power plant operators over the past few months.

Detroit power plant shift operator Randy Hood passed away in October. Coworkers most remember him for his friendship and positive attitude.

“He was a really nice, laid-back guy,” said fellow operator Chad Tschida. “He never had a bad word for anyone, and was always willing to help.”

Lookout Point senior power plant operator Greg Zeiber passed away in November. He will be most remembered for his constant striving for perfection.

“He was really involved with his work, because he always wanted to do it right the first time with no regrets,” said fellow senior operator Paul Gallegos.

“He was really self-sacrificial to the job,” added shift operator Tim Pierce. “He was the one who was always in early and home late to come up with extremely detailed answers when there was an issue to be resolved.”

In addition, Rogue River Basin Project employees are mourning the loss of Zachary Jones, son of longtime power plant operator Bearl Jones, in December.

According to Lost Creek shift operator John Funke, Zachary, age 25, spent a lot time at the project with his father and was well known and liked by the crew. Zach’s goal was to work for the Corps as a utility man and ultimately move up to operator.