This week, five men who work at the largest dam in the Republic of Georgia — that’s one of the former Soviet republics — are in Spokane to learn about how dams in eastern Washington are operated.
The Enguri Arch Dam is a tall, curved structure built in a narrow canyon. It blocks the Enguri River and provides about 40% of the electricity for that region. But it’s also in an unusual situation, which we’ll mention in a minute.
Ivane Pirveli [ee-VON-uh peer-VELL-ee] is a consultant for the USAID energy program. He’s from Georgia and he has accompanied the Georgian delegation to the States. He says the 40-year-old dam and its powerhouse need some repair and so these men have come to tour Grand Coulee and to talk with Avista officials.
“It’s a wonderful opportunity for the delegates and for us to come here, to see the largest dam in the U.S. and our delegates have the chance to communicate with their colleagues from the U.S," Pirveli said.
Here’s the tricky part: The Enguri Dam is in Georgia and its power station is in the region of Abkhazia, which 26 years ago, declared itself independent of Georgia. So, the Georgian government operates the dam but doesn’t control the power station.
“It’s a single energy facility, so you have to operate it as one. And during the operations, people who work on the dam have to also work on the power station side. Once they are doing their job, they have to go back to the special checkpoint and cross the border just to do their responsibilities,” Pirveli said.
He says the delegation is also here to learn more about the public process involved in making environmental and other laws related to the dam.
“Like social impact, environmental impact and the electric generation, economic development. It all comes together and we find very much similarity,” Pirveli said.
But a trip and a delegation like this is also about cultural exchanges. The Open World Leadership Center, which is an exchange program based in the nation’s capital, arranged for the group to come to eastern Washington. And the Community Colleges of Spokane is the host institution.
“This program has different components. It has a cultural component and they’re staying with host families and learning about American values and learning about our community," said Hadda Estrada, the dean of the CCS's Global Education and Strategic Partnerships.
"But it also has a week of professional activities and we started off the week with visits with Avista, with professional engineers there," she said. "The following day there was a visit at Grand Coulee and there they also met with their counterparts there and had questions and the opportunity to learn about best practices at Grand Coulee and then we had a tour of the dam. Then we are also going to visit with Avista. We’re going to the Nine Mile Dam, meeting also with professional engineers there.”
The group is also meeting with Spokane Mayor David Condon and with members of the Upper Columbia United Tribes to talk about the Columbia River Treaty and how it governs operations of dams on both sides of the U.S.-Canadian border.
Mr. Pirveli and another of the delegates are staying in the home of Tom and Peggy Best.
“We are members of an organization called Friendship Force International," Tom Best said. "The difference between Friendship Force and other travel organizations is that we stay in people’s homes because this is how you get to know people.
"You eat at their table, you sleep in their homes and you interact, so this is a great way of doing that. And we have done this in the past and so this opportunity that came when the Georgians are here, we happen to be going to Georgia in September, so this is working out to be quite well.”
Mr. Pirveli says the group appreciates the hospitality it’s been shown in Spokane and considers itself lucky to be matched up with the Lilac City as part of its travel to the U.S.