Army Corps officials hear Sweet Home feedback on plan for dams system

Benny Westcott

A plan that will reshape management of 13 dams and reservoirs in the Willamette River Basin was the subject of a public meeting at the Sweet Home Senior Center on Jan. 11.

About 60 citizens attended the meeting, which had similar counterparts last week in Eugene, Springfield and Stayton.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers hosted the meetings after the agency released a 2,200-page blueprint for managing how it stores and releases over 500 trillion gallons of water used for drinking, irrigation and recreation in the Willamette Valley.

That document is known as a draft Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement (EIS). It took over three years to complete and was last updated in 1980. It comes after years of lawsuits and court orders demanding the Corps retrofit dam operations to help native salmon and steelhead avoid extinction.

The plan lays out seven different alternatives for how the agency could manage the 13 dams and reservoirs.

People can comment on which alternatives they like most and why during a public comment period underway until Feb. 23.

“What we’re doing now will be important for how we manage the system for the next 30 years,” said Nicklas Knudson, acting project manager for the EIS revisions with the Corps. “This is the best chance to directly affect how we manage this system in the future. At this point, we can still make changes.”

The Corps’ “preferred alternative” proposes changes at Green Peter and Foster Reservoirs.

Kathryn Warner, technical lead of the EIS, explained to The New Era that, under the plan, a “spring spill” would take place at Green Peter annually, a process that would involve filling the reservoir and using the spillway to pass young fish downstream. Green Peter would then be drawn down in the fall more than it currently is.

The reservoir would start to be drawn down in late June or July to meet a target elevation in the fall, with the lowest elevation occurring in mid to late November. Warner explained that lowering the reservoir closer to a regulating outlet in the fall allows the fish to find that outlet and keep swimming downstream.

Warner explained why the Corps prefers to drawdown Foster as opposed to building fish passage structures. “Structures are really expensive to build, and depending on the location they are not as effective,” she said.

“We know that drawdowns work. We do it at Fall Creek all the way down to the river bottom. Fish are feeling that water going downstream, so they’re more apt to follow it to that outlet and find that outlet. It’s called a volitional passage, meaning that we’re not handling them, picking them up, trucking them and transporting them. They just go down on their own.

“We need to get the fish downstream so they can continue their migration out to the ocean,” she said, noting that the Corps’ focus is on spring chinook, winter steelhead and bull trout in particular.

Warner said she heard concerns about recreation from local residents at the meeting.

“They don’t want to lose the reservoir, because they really like boating and catching fish in the reservoir,” she said.

Christie Johnson, lead park ranger for Green Peter and Foster, said access to the lake seems to be a big issue for residents.

“Some people are concerned about not being able to get access to the reservoir when it’s drawn down, because Thistle Creek Boat Ramp ends at a certain elevation, and the water level’s going to be way below that for maybe up to three months or so.

“It’s during the winter, where there’s not quite as much use, but there are still some people that like to use the low-water boat ramp during the winter.”

Johnson said she was also hearing concerns that lowering Green Peter could have an impact on sport fishing.

“The purpose of it is to move juvenile salmon downstream, but other fish may move through as well,” she said.

Greg Taylor, fish biologist for the project, said that more fish will indeed be flushed out of Green Peter with the drawdown operations, including popular sport fish like bass and kokanee.

He said the biggest concern he heard from local residents at the meeting was that the fisheries people participate in would be changed so negatively that they aren’t going to be able to fish them anymore.

“People were saying those fish aren’t going to be there, you’re going to get rid of them all,” he said. “They don’t want their fisheries to go away.”

He stressed that that would not be the case.

“Those fisheries are not going away, but we are operating differently,” he said. “We are going to move fish out more than what we did in the past. Kokanee will go out, bass will go out, but there’s going to be a bunch of them that stay in. There will still be fisheries for kokanee and bass.”

And he noted that he thinks that a lot of the fish that are going to stay in the reservoir are going to get bigger.

“For instance, the kokanee that a lot of these guys fish for, I think they’re going to be bigger,” Taylor said. “And I think that actually in a lot of ways can be pretty attractive to the fishery.”

In addition to losing fisheries, Warner noted that some people are worried about loss of hydropower under the plan. But she said that “the plan is not to remove hydropower, it’s to figure out how to feasibly operate it.”

Warner added that there would be an adult fish facility constructed at Green Peter in addition to the drawdowns.

“It’s basically a way to collect those adult fish at the base of the dam and then drive them upstream and put them into the river upstream,” she explained.

She said that at Foster, a structural means would be constructed to pass fish.

At one point during the meeting, Sweet Home City Councilor Dave Trask interjected to say, “This is all about taking all the dams out. That’s what this is about. In my opinion, that’s what’s going to happen. It’s going to happen, because Oregon wants to get rid of them. I’m serious.”

In response to Trask’s comments, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Portland District Public Affairs Specialist John Morgan told The New Era that Trask’s comments on the Corps’ plans were “far from the truth.”

“Not even close. It has nothing to do with removing the dam. It really is the long-term effect that these dams will have on the environment. That’s what we’re looking at.

“It’s nothing about removal. In fact, it’s more about that these dams are going to be here for a long, long time. And we’re here to tell you, because they’re going to be here a long time, what effects they’re going to have on the environment, and how we can change operations and structures to help mitigate things.”

The Corps’ preferred alternative proposes a number of effects on the Willamette Valley System outside of just Green Peter and Foster, of course.

The plan proposes a major drawdown of Cougar Reservoir, a body of water on the South Fork McKenzie River in Lane County, in the spring and fall that would allow salmon and steelhead to migrate through the bottom of the dam, giving access to better spawning habitat in the upper river while juvenile fish return downstream.

Currently, dams block access to the best spawning ground for the fish, which are protected under the Endangered Species Act. But while the extreme drawdown of Cougar is probably the best option for fish migration, it would mean “major adverse effects to reservoir recreation at this location,” the EIS said.

The drawdown would also mean less stored water in the Willamette system and require other reservoirs to release additional water to keep flows at normal levels for drinking water, irrigation and water temperature for fish.

However, the early release of Cougar also means that some reservoirs, such as Detroit Lake, could fill more easily during dry springs.

“It could mean a slight decrease in the water level of the reservoirs in some years, but overall, I don’t think people would see much difference,” Warner said. “In fact, in drier years, it could actually help some reservoirs fill.”

Another impact of the preferred alternative, according to the EIS, is reducing hydropower produced by the Willamette system’s dams by 18 megawatts – roughly enough to power 14,334 households annually.

“There would be long-term, major, adverse effects on economic viability of power generation,” the EIS states. Other parts of the alternative include building a long-debated fish passage system and temperature tower at Detroit Dam and creating a number of other structures.

The preferred alternative costs $52 million per year, about middle of the road in terms of cost compared to the other alternatives.

“The Preferred Alternative improves fish passage through the (Willamette Valley System) dams using a combination of modified operations and structural improvements, along with other measures to balance water management flexibility and meet ESA-listed fish obligations,” the EIS states.

Corps officials emphasized that while this is their preferred alternative, it’s not necessarily the one they’ll ultimately go with.

Six additional alternatives remain under consideration.

Alternative 1 would focus on storing more water to help cities and farmers with irrigation, produce more hydropower and aid recreation in communities behind dams like Detroit by having longer recreation seasons.

It would also mean more water for downstream uses. But it would cost $104 million per year, twice what the preferred option would cost, due mainly to the number of structures that would need to be built while “resulting in fewer benefits to ESA species,” the report says.

Alternatives 2A and 2B are similar to the preferred alternative, including a mix of new structures and actions.

The main difference is that it would not include drawing down Cougar Reservoir and instead construct a fish passage system with a floating fish screen in 2A.

It would cost more at $67 million per year, but increase hydropower. “The uncertainty that a (floating fish screen) would effectively collect juvenile fish migrating downstream at Cougar Dam, coupled with the high cost to design, construct and operate the facility, lead USACE to not select alternative 2,” the report states.

Alternatives 3A and 3B would bring the most significant changes to the entire system by using major drawdowns at multiple reservoirs each spring.

Alternative 3A would reduce storage of the dams by 56% and would likely cause downstream water users such as cities and irrigators to be shut off in drier years.

It also would decrease hydropower by 87 megawatts per year and impact recreation by having lower water elevation. The Corps estimates it could cause a 50% reduction in recreation-related jobs along the North Santiam River. Alternative 3B has similar effects, but not to Detroit Reservoir.

In Alternative 4, fish passage would be improved primarily with structures to help water quality and fish passage, and more stored water would be released in the summer and fall. But it would be the most expensive at $113 million per year.

Some changes are happening, for sure.

The Corps says new measures it is proposing under all the alternatives are adding gravel below Big Cliff, Foster, Cougar and Blue River dams in the North Santiam, South Santiam and McKenzie Rivers, adding new fish release sites above dams, adding impact-resistant materials such as stones to the banks of rivers to protect the water and river bank from erosion, adapting the hatchery program based on changing conditions of fish protected by the Endangered Species Act, and drawing down water in the fall at Fall Creek Reservoir to aid in fish passage.

At the meeting in Sweet Home on Jan. 10, Operations Project Manager Erik Petersen said that “For all of us, the challenges in complying with laws, reflecting regional and community values, and driving sustainability while protecting lives and property is difficult.

“Depending on your specific interests, you could feel like a winner or a loser. I’d ask you to step back, consider the bigger picture, recognize the tough balance we must facilitate and realize that everyone is giving up something and everyone is gaining something.

“No one is getting everything the way that they wanted.”

He added that, “this effort is really all about defining new tactics for continued operations, maintenance and stewardship of the system.

“We continue to provide flood risk management benefits that we always have while improving conditions for important species and meeting all the legal requirements that we must.

“While I may be an optimist, my hope is that we can get closer to consent, if not consensus among tribes, partners, stakeholders and the public to allow us to adapt, align and move forward.”