Plant maintenance can be tricky in remote regions of the Sacramento Municipal Utility District (SMUD), therefore engineers sometimes borrow methods from yesteryear.
There are no roads leading to SMUD’s 688-MW Upper American River Project hydroelectric system, so recent projects at Rubicon Dam and Buck Island Reservoir saw SMUD engineers and contractors join 20 pack mules and their four handlers on a more than 6-mile trek with three tons of construction equipment, tools and camping supplies.
A new operating license from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission required SMUD to replace the valve at Rubicon Dam because the new license requires the release of higher water volumes than the old valve could handle. At Buck Island Reservoir, the weir that measures and verifies the flow rate of water released from the reservoir was about 50 years old.
The journey began at the base camp at Loon Lake equestrian campground where the mules traveled unloaded for the first five miles on Rubicon Trail. A chopper carried a 2,300-pound valve, two generators weighing nearly that much, two seconds of pipe weighing 900 pounds and assorted heavy tools and equipment to the Desolation Wilderness boundary where the mules were loaded and continued the final 1.6 miles to Rubicon Dam.
Five mules and one or two handlers made supply runs to camp, delivering ice and food and hauling trash while two separate groups of SMUD employees and contractors worked 12-hour days for the entirety of the 10-day project. Both groups received CPR and first-aid training ahead of the projects due to the remote location and no quick access to emergency medical services. Each group was equipped with trauma kits and oxygen tanks and used two-way radios and satellite phones for communication.
At the completion of the project, equipment and waste were transported back to the wilderness border by the mules, following SMUD’s leave-no-trace philosophy.