BEND, Ore. -

The U.S. Department of Interior has identified hundreds of irrigation canals like the ones that flow through Central Oregon as a potentially major source of hydroelectric power, adding to its previous finding that dams and reservoirs also hold more untapped power potential.

One example is the North Unit Irrigation District main canal, in which a new report identifies 49 locations where power could be generated. The administration sees a benefit from adding hydro facilities to existing infrastructure. There would be few environmental consequences, since canals already are screened to keep fish out, Central Oregon Irrigation District Manager Steve Johnson told The Bulletin.

"It just makes sense -- you already have energy that's flowing downhill," Johnson said.

But North Unit General Manager Mike Britton expressed skepticism on luring private investors because most of the proposed sites are in isolated locations, without an easy way to connect to the power grid, the paper reported. COID, meanwhile, is pointing to recent successes in developing hydro sites, such as one at Juniper Ridge. While water flows through canals only about half the year, it would be a predictable, stable source of energy during those months, Johnson told the paper.

Here's the news release issued late last week by the Interior Department:

As part of President Obama?s all-of-the-above strategy for American energy, Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar and Assistant Secretary for Water and Science Anne Castle announced today that the department has identified 373 existing Bureau of Reclamation canals and conduits that have the combined potential of generating an additional 365,219 megawatt-hours of hydropower annually.

This finding builds upon the 191 existing Reclamation dam and reservoir sites identified in 2011 with a potential of 1.2 million MWh annually. Reclamation has now identified a potential for 1.565 million MWh of additional electricity that could be generated annually at existing Reclamation conduits.

"Hydropower is an important part of President Obama's initiative to generate 80 percent of electricity in this country from a diverse set of clean energy sources by 2035," Salazar said. "Identifying and developing hydropower potential at existing facilities is one way we?re putting the all-of-the-above strategy to develop American energy sources into practice."

The new report, Site Inventory and Hydropower Energy Assessment of Reclamation Owned Conduits, prepared by the Bureau of Reclamation, supplements a March 2011 report, Hydropower Resource Assessment at Existing Reclamation Facilities. The 2011 report estimated that additional hydropower capabilities could create enough renewable energy to annually power more than 104,000 households. The 2012 report adds the potential from canals and conduits. The 2011 and 2012 reports are available www.usbr.gov/power.

"Developing hydropower in existing publicly owned canals gives us an additional source of consistent, sustainable and reliable energy supplies in the West, with minimal impact on other natural resources," Castle said. "Adding power generation to these canals would provide power for up to 32,500 households. Combined with the generation potential at existing dams and reservoirs, up to 136,500 households could be served. These reports highlight the exciting potential for new, environmentally sustainable hydropower development and creation of related jobs at existing facilities throughout the western United States."

The assessment released Thursday on canals shows that about 70 percent of the potential capacity is located in three states: Colorado, Oregon and Wyoming, although 13 of the 17 western states have new generation potential from conduits.

This assessment provides information to Reclamation and potential private developers so they can determine whether to study these sites for development. The report includes the capacity, energy potential and proximity to distribution/transmission lines for each site. The report also provides site maps.

Development of hydropower at the identified sites would proceed along one of Reclamation's normal hydropower development processes?either through Reclamation's Lease of Power Privilege process or the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission's licensing process, depending on which entity has jurisdiction over a particular project.

If a project is developed under Reclamation's Lease of Power Privilege process, the project may be eligible to proceed through an existing Categorical Exclusion from NEPA requirements which should save the developer time and money. Reclamation recently issued a temporary directive and standard for its Lease of Power Privilege requirements and process. It is also available for public review and comment at www.usbr.gov/recman.

The Bureau of Reclamation manages more than 47,000 miles of canals, laterals, drains, pipelines and tunnels. Sites included in this supplemental report as having potential for hydropower development have a drop of at least five feet, operate for at least four months of the year, and have a generation potential of at least 50 kW based upon flow rate of canal and the drop height. Not all of Reclamation's canals meet these criteria.

Both the 2011 and 2012 reports support the 2010 Memorandum of Understanding among the Department of the Interior, the Department of Energy, and the Army Corps of Engineers that enhances the coordination of their efforts to provide the nation with affordable, reliable and environmentally sustainable hydropower.

To download both the 2011 and 2012 reports, visit Reclamation's website at www.usbr.gov/power.