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Nine Teams Swim Toward the Fish Protection Grand Prize at the American Fisheries Society Virtual Annual Meeting

August 28, 2020

Nine teams of fish protection afficionados are hopeful their bait will reel in the big one.

On their hooks? Winning proposals for protecting fish at water diversions and intakes.

Photo of a close up of the profile of an orange and grey fish swimming in dark waters. Green vegetation on the right-hand side of the image
Learn how these fearless fish protectors fare in the PITCH Contest this September. Photo from Kelly Lacy, Pexels

The Fish Protection Prize, a joint venture of the Bureau of Reclamation and the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Water Power Technologies Office (WPTO), is administered by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) in collaboration with the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL).

The $700,000 prize cast a wide net, bringing together industry, academia, entrepreneurs, and everyone in between to catalyze new solutions, designs, and strategies to protect fish from water infrastructure, such as water diversions, pipes, and intakes at hydropower dams.

In June, WPTO announced nine winners of the CONCEPT Stage, the first stage of the three-stage prize. These CONCEPT Stage winners will present their ideas at a virtual pitch contest hosted by the American Fisheries Society (AFS) at their Virtual Annual Meeting Sept. 14–25.

Let’s peer into the possibilities for tomorrow’s hydropower systems and learn a bit more about these teams and their winning proposals.

CONCEPT Stage Champs

CONCEPT competitors submitted their approaches either for developing new, cost-effective fish exclusion methods at water diversions and intakes or making improvements to existing technologies.

Out of 21 teams, 9 winners were selected to continue on to the INCUBATION Stage of the prize, where they were paired with staff from PNNL. The teams received 50 hours of support from PNNL experts to refine their creative concepts in advance of the PITCH CONTEST Stage of the prize.

At the September AFS meeting, these teams of trailblazers will share their brainstorms for keeping fish safe in the form of a 10-minute pitch and a 10-minute question-and-answer period. Their presentations will introduce the concept, its technical and market feasibility, as well as the overall research and development plan.

Putting Their Best PITCH Forward

A Contender Steps Back in the Ring: Air Bubble Curtain for Physical Exclusion

Timothy Hogan, owner of TWB Environmental Research and Consulting Inc., found success in the first round of the Reclamation-sponsored prize and is coming back for more.

His company was founded on the principle of sustainable development of water-use projects. “TWB hopes to strike the balance between the engineered and natural world,” Hogan said.

A fish biologist with approximately 20 years of experience in fish protection at industrial water intakes, Hogan believes that air bubbles could be the key to successful fish exclusion. His proposed technology employs air bubbles to prevent the entrainment of fish eggs, larvae, and debris in intakes and diversions. And unlike other types of fish exclusion technology, Hogan’s performs a screening function without the need for a physical screening structure.

Connections are key, according to Hogan. “TWB has made a number of connections with various industries to better understand where this technology may best fit a need. I feel our relationships within the industries give us the greatest edge.”

Helping Fish Slow Their Roll: The Center Sender

A simple, self-cleaning device, developed by the team from Natel Energy and the University of Innsbruck, guides entrained fish to low-velocity regions of the turbine, reducing fish harm as well as hydraulic losses.

“We understand that turbines don’t have to be innately dangerous passage routes for migrating fish if safe passage is part of the design intent of the turbine itself,” said Sterling Watson, Senior Mechanical Engineer at Natel. “Fish protection is core to our professional mission of developing sustainable, competitive hydropower technologies, and it motivates everything we do as turbine designers.”

The Center Sender is a guidance device intended to improve the survival of fish entering hydropower facilities and diversions, while imposing minimal effects on the generation performance and maintenance requirements for those facilities, Watson said. A base bar and a collection of cantilevered rods guide fish to the safest pathway.

The modules offer flexible installation possibilities for low-head hydro facilities, irrigation diversions, or hydro sites where the fish mortality risks are high. “Our concept improves upon the current state of fish protection technologies primarily on the basis of cost, simplicity, and applicability to a variety of sites,” Watson explained.

The team is currently hard at work, installing their first full-scale fish-safe turbine in the field. They feel that their ability to implement and test the Center Sender in the field gives them a leg up on the competition.

An Evolution-Driven Design Millions of Years in the Making: Deal With the Devil Fish: Biometric Screen

A team from Alden Research Laboratory Inc., led by Senior Engineer Ben Mater, proposed an intake screen design inspired by filter-feeding fish. Alden, a hydraulic modeling and environmental consulting firm, boasts more than 50 years of experience in designing and evaluating fish passage and protection measures across the country for a variety of species.

The team comprises hydraulic engineers and fisheries scientists with expertise in lab and field testing, as well as computer modeling of fish protection systems. “Our concept is a relatively simple but elegant redesign of the wedge-wire screen shape currently used in many fish exclusion and guidance applications,” Mater said. “In cross-section, the conceptual screen wires mimic the shape of tiny filter elements in the gills of filter-feeding fish such as the manta and devil rays.”

The self-described “geeks who love to solve tough problems related to fluid dynamics and fish protection” plan to exploit flow patterns in their nature-inspired screen concept to protect egg- and larval-stage organisms from entrainment at intake structures. They hope to scale up their concept to protect organisms in larger life stages as well.

“The overarching goal is to create a screen or louver-like design that calls upon millions of years of evolution to outperform existing technology in terms of fish exclusion, head loss, and debris fowling with minimal impact to existing infrastructure or project cost,” Mater said.

Nets from New Age Materials: Fish Diversion Materials and Inspection Improvements

The fish guidance netting systems proposed by Nicholas LaBry’s team are enhanced by the addition of glass microspheres for added strength and acoustic reflectivity.

The multidisciplinary team from Prometheus Innovations LLC brings 35 years of experience in marine and underwater systems to the table. With scientific training and knowledge in physics, chemistry, and electrical engineering, alongside real-world experience in robotics, remote sensing, dam impoundment maintenance, and water transport system maintenance, the team feels well positioned to develop innovative fish exclusion solutions.

Their concept involves a polymer netting guidance system featuring a material enhancement to produce an acoustic reflectance response. This enhancement allows for sonar imaging inspection and identification of netting damage, fouling, and deterioration, improving safety for maintenance personnel while reducing maintenance costs.

“Sonar imaging inspection is a much more efficient process in terms of square meter per minute inspected than inspection by divers or close-range video on a remote operated vehicle,” Nick LaBry said. “It significantly reduces necessary diver intervention, providing an element of safety by lessening the exposure of a human diver to a hazardous environment and conditions while also reducing the deployment cost for netting inspection,” he said.

Giving Bottom-Feeders a Boost: Fish Entrainment Reduction Structure (FERS)

A team from Alden, spanning the states of Massachusetts, Colorado, Washington, and Oregon, developed a structure consisting of precast concrete panels, which can be installed either at an angle to an intake to serve as a guidance structure, or parallel, to serve as an exclusion structure, explained Jenna Rackovan, a fisheries biologist on the Alden Team. Essentially, bottom-oriented fish would encounter the FERS and swim alongside it until they are safely past the intake or reach a bypass.

An environmental consulting firm, Alden brings together fisheries scientists and engineers to develop and evaluate fish protection systems and upstream and downstream fish passage facilities. They often employ live fish in test flumes to pinpoint optimum design and operational criteria while improving fish passage efficiency.

According to Rackovan, the team has “extensive experience in numerical and physical modeling, fish passage design, and lab and field evaluations of fish passage [and] biological and engineering performance.”

The team’s proposal is unique precisely because of the types of fish it serves—bottom-oriented species, such as American eel, sturgeon, and flounders, many of which are endangered or protected, Rackovan said. The team’s structure would be the first to focus on protection of such species.

According to Rackovan, “I got into this profession because of my love for fish and the waters they live in…We feel it is important to protect our fisheries resources so they can be around for generations to come to enjoy.”

Fish Exclusion Using a Floating Separator

Jeremy Martinez’s team’s concept works for a broad range of flow conditions and involves a floating separator to safely divert fish from harm, while efficiently removing sediment. 

Building Bridges Between Fish Safety and Hydropower: Fish-Friendly Gravitational Vortex Energy System (GVvFES)

The vortex system from Ron Bingaman’s team not only provides safe passage for all fish species, upstream and downstream, but also improves oxygen levels in the water.

With 20 years in corporate business, and 9 in renewable energy with a focus on hydropower, the team’s approach “is not based on perpetuating the exclusionary or adversarial-type relationship between fish safety groups and the hydropower industry,” Bingaman said. “This project seeks to build sustainable, strategically-integrated, long-term solutions that will sustain fish safety, environmental benefits, and renewable hydropower energy into the next millennium,” he said.

With his team’s proposal of the GVvFES, Bingaman hopes to improve upon the business-as-usual approaches that are “expensive to install, maintain, and can, on occasion, fail.”

According to Bingaman, GVvFES boasts a number of features, including flexible siting options, the ability to be retrofitted at refurbished facility sites, as well as sited at existing utility-sized facilities and at low- to medium-head levels. Units can be stacked to provide safe fish passage around otherwise impassable barriers, such as waterfalls, and it allows both upstream and downstream fish passage while naturally oxygenating the water. 

Safety through Sensory: Sweeping CHIRPs, Looming Darkness: In-Sync Stimuli

The Fisheries Technology Associates Inc. team’s concept employed the use of low-frequency sounds and ultrasonic frequencies combined with pulsating light/dark patterns to keep fish out of water diversions and intakes.

Bill Manci and Ted Ground built their careers in aquatic biology, fisheries science, and natural resource management around efforts to promote management practices for aquatic species, water quality and quantity, and natural habitats, especially for fish and other aquatic organisms in the United States and around the world.

Rather than proposing a physical barrier for fish exclusion, the Fisheries Technology Associates Inc. team’s concept employs a combination of visual and auditory stimuli, instead of a physical structure, to repel fish from intakes and other potentially harmful structures.

“Flashing lights, bubbles, and sound have been used for fish exclusion in the past, but we believe that we have developed a multi-sensory stimuli approach that is unique and effective for many species and sizes of fish, for the purpose of protecting fish without undue stress or harm,” the team said. Their design boasts simple deployment, “essentially ‘plug and play’ modules” and a low cost of operation.

“There’s a sense of legacy here, that we could hand something of lasting value over to the next generation of aquatic biologists and fisheries science professionals who will be actively engaged in continued natural resource management in the future,” Manci and Ground said.

A Team of Anglers Let Nature Be Their Guide: Umida AG—Aquifer Pipe

The Umida AG team pitched a specially designed pipe that is buried in the river channel at a depth of one to two feet, allowing water to pass through while excluding fish and fish eggs.

The team is working to shift the paradigm, from low-mortality solutions to zero-mortality solutions. “Our approach is zero mortality across all aquatic species and life cycles,” Umida AG President Joseph Gallegos said.

The multigenerational team of anglers’ experience lies in managing subsurface water tables for agricultural crops. “We came about this solution one day talking about California’s Delta Smelt,” Gallegos said.

Their concept is based on the premise of rivers and streams as an aquatic food web, requiring invertebrates, amphibians, and forage fish to survive so that larger species such as salmon can grow. And simplicity is the key to their design: “Simple is better—less parts to break, maintain, and repair.”

The entrepreneur startup is “always looking at how we can design solutions that mimic nature’s way of doing things,” Gallegos said.

Their design mirrors nature’s way of withdrawing water through the earth into subterranean streams,” he said. The system draws water through an artificial spawning ground of gravel and sand and into specialized drainpipes placed one to two feet beneath the river bottom. Collecting water through natural percolation flow, the system requires no maintenance. The aquifer pipe diffuses downwelling effects and increases dissolved oxygen, all while sparing eggs and aquatic life.

Bounty on the Brain

In September, these nine teams will swim toward the finish line.

During the PITCH CONTEST Stage, competitors will present their concepts to a panel of expert reviewers, as well as members of the public. They will showcase their concepts with the overarching goal of convincing the expert panel of the technical underpinnings, business case, and feasibility of deployment of their proposals.

Up to three winners will swim away with the top prize, receiving cash and in-kind support to further evolve and develop their concepts. Follow along as they transform their concepts from theory into the tangible through fall 2021.

Learn more about the NREL’s Water Research and the Fish Protection Prize.