The Bureau of Reclamation’s Lower Colorado Basin Region manages the agency’s water and power facilities on the last 688 miles of the Colorado River, across southern Nevada, Southern California, most of Arizona, and small portions of New Mexico and Utah. Reclamation facilities in the region, including the iconic Hoover Dam, deliver 9 million acre-feet of water a year and generate 5–6 billion kilowatt-hours of hydroelectric power. In this interview, Dr. Terry Fulp, the retiring regional director of the Lower Colorado Basin Region, tells Hydro Leader about his work over more than three decades in public service.
Hydro Leader: Please tell us about your background and how you came to be in your current position.
Terry Fulp: My background is in geology and geophysics. I worked summers in the oil patch and thought I’d always stay in the oil patch. During the mid-1980s downturn, I reevaluated my career goals and took a night class in environmental resources. During a class break, I was talking to the professor, and he asked me what I did and what I’d like to do. I told him I was interested in living in the West. He told me that I should get into water—that water was as valuable as oil in the West. That was an eye-opener for me. I started looking into water and decided to go back to school. I got another master’s degree in Boulder, Colorado; joined a research center; earned a PhD; and got hired by the Bureau of Reclamation. I have been fortunate to have the opportunities I have had at this agency. After 31 years, I am retiring as a regional director.
Hydro Leader: What accomplishment are you most proud of from your time at Reclamation?
Terry Fulp: I think I am most proud of the relationships that I’ve developed. Relationships are critical to solving the complex water-power issues that we face. I’m a firm believer in the idea that relationships provide a basis for finding solutions among people with different points of view. Without relationships, that is much more difficult. I have been fortunate to have the opportunity to build relationships broadly but also deeply.
Hydro Leader: How is the drought affecting hydropower production, and how are those effects being mitigated?
Terry Fulp: Reduced head, which is caused by decreasing elevations, particularly at Lake Mead, means we don’t produce as much hydropower. At Hoover Dam, we have refurbished five of our turbines to operate efficiently at much wider head ranges. Those turbines were originally designed to have what I often call a sweet spot. If you stayed in that range of head, they operated efficiently. If you get out of the range they were designed for, particularly as head decreased, they operated inefficiently, and at some point, they couldn’t really operate at all.
The power contractors who fund our operations and maintenance at Hoover Dam decided that refurbishing those five turbines was worth the investment. It took about 3 years to replace them one at a time. Now they work really well. Our contractors feel that we could get what we needed from Hoover Dam by refurbishing five at this time; if we need more down the road, they can do more.
Overall, we can mitigate some of the effects of drought by putting more water in Lake Mead; that’s what the Drought Contingency Plans (DCPs) are all about. Through those efforts in both the United States and Mexico, our estimate today is that Lake Mead is about 35 feet higher than it would be without all the conservation efforts that led up to the DCPs.
Hydro Leader: How many turbines does Hoover Dam have in total?
Terry Fulp: It has 17, of various sizes. It also generates station power, so the turbines aren’t all of the same design and don’t have the same megawattage.
Hydro Leader: Are the five new turbines you installed all the same brand and type?
Terry Fulp: They are all basically the same, with four of one brand and one of a different brand. They’re stainless steel. The veins of the turbine are curved to allow them to be more efficient with a broader range of head. The veins in the old turbine were vertical. This is a really high-tech design.
Hydro Leader: As the talks begin for the next set of operational guidelines, what are the biggest challenges that negotiators will face?
Terry Fulp: There are many challenges. The main thing is to figure out which of those challenges to address immediately and which ones to address later. That’s going to be a challenge in and of itself. The changing climate is a huge issue because it’s affecting our water supply. The other big piece of the equation is water use, especially between the upper and lower Colorado River basins.
Hydro Leader: What is your fondest memory from your 31 years of public service?
Terry Fulp: I have many fond memories. My fondest memory is from early in my career, around 1992 or 1993. There are four penstocks at Hoover Dam that serve the turbines with water. They are essentially 30-foot-diameter pipes. We periodically take one out of service and go inside it to inspect it and fix the coating. Former commissioner Bob Johnson, who was the regional director at the time, invited me to join him and my direct boss, Tim Ulrich, inside the penstock. We walked all the way back to where it turned vertically to meet the intake tower. It was remarkable. Just being able to do that was so exciting.
Hydro Leader: How do you get inside a penstock like that?
Terry Fulp: There is a cover that looks something like a hatch you would see on a submarine. Each penstock has one. The penstock gets dewatered, the bolts get taken off, the hatch is opened, and then you can climb down a ladder.