Julie Bryant and her husband own the Summer Lake Inn, a small resort with a few cabins near the shore of the lake. Bryant fears the hydro project will ruin the environment that brings tens of thousands of migratory birds - and hundreds of birdwatchers and waterfowl hunters - to this remote spot every year, as well as the special ambiance that draws permanent and temporary urban refugees in search of peace.
"It's the quiet, the light," she says. "People come here because you can see the stars at night and you can't hear anything but the birds."
Pumped storage hydro plants harness the force of gravity to generate power. At Summer Lake, NT Hydro wants to pump water 2,600 feet up to an 80-acre reservoir at the top of Winter Ridge, then let it flow down through turbines and send the electricity 12 miles overland into the grid.
Summer Lake covers a vast area - 20 miles long by 10 miles wide - but it's less than three feet deep at its deepest, so NT Hydro would have to dig out a sump near the lake's north end to collect enough water to make the scheme work. Opponents say that would draw down lake levels and imperil marshes, including the state wildlife refuge and the federal Diablo Mountain Wilderness Study Area (WSA) on the lake's east side, which are home to more than 250 species of birds including bald eagles, white faced ibis, hermit thrushes, great blue herons, many varieties of ducks, and the threatened Western snowy plover.
Among Summer Lake Valley locals, Julie Bryant is leading the charge against NT Hydro's application to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) for a preliminary permit to do feasibility studies of the project. "We've gotten statements of opposition from virtually every resident," she said. "I would say every landowner in the valley has come out in opposition."
Fortunately for Bryant and her neighbors, they have more numerous and powerful allies: The Oregon Natural Desert Association (ONDA), Oregon Wild and Oregon Water Watch are all joining the fight against the Summer Lake and Abert Lake projects.
"ONDA, along with other conservation organizations, local landowners and people who love both of these lakes, is working to provide comments and protests to FERC over the application for preliminary permits," said Dave Becker, staff attorney for ONDA. "ONDA, along with Oregon Wild and Water Watch, (is) going to file a motion to intervene so we can all become parties and be able to track the projects and interpose our objections."
Becker pointed out that both the Summer Lake and the Abert Lake proposals would impact wilderness study areas, which the federal Bureau of Land Management (BLM) is legally mandated to protect from degradation.
In the Abert Lake project, he said, "They would dig a tunnel right under the wilderness study area. They plan to take little Mule Lake at the top of Abert Rim and dredge it and expand it so it could contain the water that's pumped up from Lake Abert. It would effectively destroy the environment of that area."
In the Summer Lake project, he continued, the Diablo Mountain WSA "would be dewatered as water is pumped out of Summer Lake. So you've got direct and very serious effects on shorebird habitat, on wildlife management areas, on areas BLM considers critical, and the direct destruction, really, of wilderness study areas."
Ironically, the Summer Lake and Abert Lake hydro plants are being pushed as "green power" projects even though they will be net energy losers. It will take more power to pump the water up to the storage reservoirs than the turbines will produce when the water flows back down.
NT Hydro hopes to make money by gaming the system - taking advantage of the price differential between daytime (expensive) electricity and night-time (cheaper) electricity by pumping the water at night and running it through the turbines and selling the resulting power during the day.
"I think everybody that has any interest in that area whatsoever is going to be unanimously opposed" to the NT Hydro projects, said Becker. "It's not going to deliver any substantial benefit to anybody except the company that's building it. There's a net loss to the energy grid."
Becker said ONDA believes some pumped storage plants can be worthwhile, but these are the wrong ones in the wrong place.
"If it was in a place that wasn't such an absolute gem and so unspoiled, these projects could help take coal-fired power plants off line," he said. "But it's all about location. And there's no indication that within the energy grid of Oregon there's a need for a project like this. There's no justification for allowing a company simply to take a profit at the expense of these lakes in the desert. We recognize there's a need for renewable energy, but not here."
Ted Sorenson, an engineer and one of the partners in NT Hydro, said the Summer Lake and Abert Lake projects will produce "green" energy because they'll use wind power to drive the pumps during the night.
"It's a renewable battery," he said. "You store energy by pumping water up during light load periods and bringing it back down. ... You take wind energy during night and pump water uphill. Then during the day when the air conditioners are running in California we would let the water run back downhill and make electricity."
The trouble with that reasoning, though, is that there are no wind farms in the Summer Lake / Abert Lake area now, and unless and until some are built the NT Hydro plants would be drawing power from the same grid that everybody else is.
"Any way you slice it, this is a pretty boneheaded idea," said Steve Pedery, conservation director for Oregon Wild. "Just from the standpoint of economics this doesn't make much sense. Wouldn't it be ironic if these projects end up buying power from PGE's coal-fired power plant up in Boardman?"
"Pumped storage facilities are like an engineer's wet dream and an accountant's nightmare," Kerr said. "They're betting energy prices will go up enough that this will be feasible. There's not enough wind power for them (even) if they had claim to it, and they don't."
The prospects for NT Hydro's proposals are uncertain. Even if the company makes it past all the regulatory barriers it will be "a minimum of five or six years" before any power starts flowing, according to Sorenson.
Sorenson also indicated that his company would substantially modify its plans - or maybe even drop them - if the local opposition was too intense.
"I am from a rural community, I grew up on a ranch," he said. "We want to interact with the locals and find something that's acceptable to them. We are looking at the site. We have done some preliminary economics, but we need to talk to the local people, listen to them, see what problems they have, if there's ways to work out any of the local problems."
It's possible, Sorenson added, that NT Hydro would "just get a flat piece of ground next to the lake" to store water instead of digging out a sump in the lake basin.
But ONDA and its allies don't want to take any chances. They're hoping to nip the projects in the bud by persuading FERC to deny the preliminary study permit.
"It's our hope to convince the commission that these projects shouldn't even go to a feasibility study stage."
The public comment period on the preliminary application closes April 4. After that, Becker said, FERC probably will make a decision in a month or two. If it issues a preliminary permit, he added, "We plan to intervene again if actual construction applications are filed in a year or two."
NT Hydro is "going to run into a political buzz saw, and I don't think they have an appreciation of that," said Andy Kerr. "Just sitting here I can think of a half-dozen ways to throw sand in their gears. I've done it before, and it was a lot of fun."
But Kerr, a veteran of many battles, knows that the fight against environmentally damaging power projects is a long-running one, and it won't end here.
"In the early '80s there was another hydro rush," he said. "I seem to recall a project on Abert Lake that called for a berm dividing the lake in two. In the early '80s there were literally hundreds and hundreds of permit applications, and I think only one or two actually got built in Oregon."
The real solution to our energy problems, Kerr believes, lies not in building more power plants but in learning to use the power we have more efficiently.
"We need to understand that we can have just as many hot showers and just as much cold beer as we have now on 10% of the energy if we just designed our houses correctly," he said. "This threat will not go away. It will come back as we deal with global warming and try to be rational about energy use in this country and on (the rest of) the Earth."