Jayson Jacoby
The Baker City Herald

Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., came to Baker County last week to talk up hydroelectric power.

We share the congressman's enthusiasm for this rather humble source of megawatts.

We've been tapping the potential of flowing water around here for about as long as we've boasted electric lights.

Walden's destination, the Rock Creek Power Plant west of Haines, first turned its namesake creek's turbulence into electricity in 1903.

Although Oregon Trail Electric Cooperative closed the plant in 1995, the vast majority of the power we use locally today was generated by the massive federal dams on the Columbia and Snake rivers.

Mark and Doug Henderson, the brothers who bought the Rock Creek plant, have been working for several years to wade through the multiple layers of bureaucracy and get permits to restart the antique operation.

And Baker County is navigating the same labyrinth with a goal of putting in a power plant at Mason Dam, on the Powder River about 15 miles southwest of Baker City.

Walden is a co-sponsor of a bill, HR 5892, that's designed to streamline this permitting process for small-scale hydro projects.

The House passed the legislation unanimously, and Walden is confident it will become law.

It should.

We don't mean to imply that projects such as the Hendersons' at Rock Creek, or the county's Mason Dam effort, will satiate America's energy appetite.

But a more concerted campaign to siphon power from flowing water could make a significant difference.

Perhaps most importantly, a renewed emphasis on hydropower could allow the nation to curb its burning of coal to make electricity.

Hydropower is not utterly benign, certainly. But small plants - especially those added to existing dams - can be designed to minimize the harmful effects on fish and other resources.

It's pretty hard to burn coal, though, without spewing greenhouse gases.