SNOQUALMIE, Wash. - If you want to see the power of water in the Northwest, Snoqualmie Falls is a place to witness it. There's even a place to stand to watch it, a special park complete with trails and observation decks. It sits on land owned by Puget Sound Energy.
But the Snoqualmie River is also about electric power, and with upgrades now going into place, in three years it will provide electric power 40,000 homes.
Snoqualmie is also about history. You can't see powerhouse #1, because it's underground - 260 feet underground - generators brought down a shaft and assembled into a power plant piece by piece.
A second power plant takes water from the opposite side of the river. There it shoots through a tunnel of a gate house and then down big pipes called penstocks to powerhouse #2. It was built in 1910, its main turbine and generator is still running.
On the other end of power plant #2, the newest turbine also cranks; it was built in 1957.
You can even feel the heat come off the old generator, PSE says that heat is wasted energy, and by installing more modern equipment and squeezing out those inefficiencies, the plants together will increase their ability to keep homes running, thousands more.
Structures including plant #2, and other buildings near the top of the falls that have already been razed, are vulnerable to earthquakes and are being replaced with new stronger buildings that will maintain the historic feel.
But the project is not just about flowing water and electrons. PSE is also lowering the dam at the top of the falls by 2 feet and widening the bank to their natural width, partly reversing a century of manmade interference.
That's good news for people who live in the towns of Snoqualmie and North Bend above the falls. PSE claims in a 100-year flood, widening this hydraulic bottleneck will bring flood levels down by 6 to 8 inches.
But the water will fall to the lower part of the river faster, which does have a wider valley. PSE says that will raise water levels there only by a quarter inch. While that sounds small, it has not gone down well with some residents and business owners in downriver communities like Fall City.
Paul Wiegand, PSE's Senior Vice President for Power Generation says it took 20 years worth of effort to get the permits in hand to make the upgrades, and license the power plants for another 40 years of use.
But as they say, "wait, there's more!" Public parks and observation areas are in some cases already being upgraded. By late 2012 and into 2013, many improvements will be in place and back open. This includes a new Snoqualmie Falls Park interpretive plaza near powerhouse # 2 with better facilities for launching kayaks, and improved public access to lower viewing areas for the falls.
Across the river along the tracks of the Northwest Railway Museum, a new depot will be constructed that will interpret many of the historic aspects of the falls, including a display of one of those early turbines from 1898.