City Pursues Two Litigations Regarding Drawdown

Fifty-six years worth of accumulated silt and sediment wash out of the South Santiam River as it merges with the North Santiam River in November 2023. Photo courtesy of Brian Stone Photography

The City of Sweet Home is now pursuing two separate lawsuits regarding the deep drawdown at Green Peter Reservoir. The most recent is an attempt to prevent the next drawdown that is scheduled to occur this summer.
According to City Manager Kelcey Young, both Sweet Home and the City of Albany are filing a motion to intervene to stop the drawdown this year. The motion regards an injunction that requires the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to do a deep drawdown of Green Peter Reservoir every year. Part of the suit includes a claim that the action violated the Clean Water Act.
“The community has asked us to stop the drawdown, so we’re doing our best to do so,” Young said. “The drawdown so far has been really hard for our community.”

Water samples compare city-treated water (left) with pre-treated water (right) at the start of the high-turbidity problems in November 2023. File photo

The first deep drawdown that started last summer and became noticeable in late summer or early fall affected Sweet Home’s drinking water, caused a lot of concern for the citizens and created a lot more work for city staff, she said. If the drawdowns continue, the city will have to retrofit the water treatment plant at an estimated $10 million.
“That’s a huge deal for Sweet Home because all of a sudden we went from having pristine drinking water to now having to figure out what to do in a high turbidity situation like this,” Young said. “That’s a huge cost for us and it’s not anything that’s budgeted. We are working to try to find funding for that, but it’s obviously very, very impactful for us.”
Facing a possible multi-million cost for water treatment comes at the same time the city prepares to upgrade a failing wastewater treatment facility.
“So that’s taking all of our funding,” Young said of the wastewater project. “We’re ready to move forward on that, but now we’re at a point where we have to almost decide, like, which one?”
She noted the city “very much cares” about the Chinook salmon and they may be more inclined to support the drawdown if there were indications it was actually helping the endangered species.

The tailrace at Green Peter Dam in October 2023 exposes silt-laden water that looks like chocolate milk. File photo

“So far there has been zero evidence that it is helping,” Young said. “In fact, just the opposite, there’s been a fair amount of evidence that by increasing the temperatures, we’re actually jeopardizing them being able to breed.”
A February 2024 report from USACE indicated that water temperatures were continually recorded in the mid-60s. The report states, “These water temperatures are known to cause Chinook egg mortality, which very likely impacted redds in the South Santiam River below Foster Dam in October.”
At the time of the report, recommendations for the 2024 drawdown had not yet been determined. The Corps and National Marine Fisheries Service might suggest some modifications to the deep drawdown, including changing the rate of drawdown as an effort to reduce high water temperatures.
“Adjusting the timing of initiation of the drawdown and the duration of the deep drawdowns may alleviate turbidity as well, reducing labor and operational costs for downstream drinking water facilities,” the report states.
A little further into the report, it states, “As with many of the injunction measures, spill for downstream fish passage is often in direct conflict with meeting downstream water quality standards or targets, and these tradeoffs should continue to be studied. Refinements to the deep drawdown timing and duration may be proposed to reduce the impacts from the drawdowns.”

A researcher for EAS counts fish carcasses at the Green Peter tailrace on Oct. 8, 2023. File photo

The suggested refinements are expected to be presented in the August 2024 Bi-Annual Status Report.
News and study reports on past dam drawdown projects elsewhere indicate muddy looking waters from silt cleared up after only a couple years, but Young said those drawdowns were “substantially smaller” and have different soil conditions compared to Green Peter Reservoir. Furthermore, the city was informed the drawdown would not impact the drinking water and, yet, that turned out not to be the case, so it’s hard to say the silt will clear up after a couple years based on other-area drawdowns.
“It’s very hard for us to be able to say that that’s likely when there’s already been so many unintended consequences that it negatively impacted us, and this is such a bigger drawdown than any of the others,” she said.
Young also reported that it’s not just a case of old silt being cleared away, but rather “huge landslides” are eroding off the reservoir, creating new sediment and silt to contend with.
“The entire sides of the hills keep crumbling into Green Peter, so we’re going to have this silt and soil continuing to replenish itself,” she said.
The USACE report states, “At this time, it is uncertain if this sediment is impacting Chinook eggs in gravels (“redds”) below Foster Dam.”
As city staff investigated other impacts to the community last summer during the drawdown, they determined that local businesses saw about a 20% decrease in tourism and profits during a time when people are known to recreate on the lakes and in the surrounding areas.

Boaters enter the Middle Santiam River at Sunnyside in October 2023 when dead juvenile fish were reported along the tributary due to the deep drawdown. File photo

“Initially the discussion was that it (the drawdown) would mostly just happen during the winter,” Young said. “That seemed fine, but it hasn’t; it impacts our summer, so then we lose our boating and recreational activity in not just Green Peter, but also Foster Lake.”
Young responded to concerns about impacts to wells, saying there does seem to be some validity to reports of wells drying up after the drawdown, but it appears to mostly impact areas outside city limits.
As for citizen complaints about chlorine affecting the health of pets and people, Young said staff “really looked into that,” but they couldn’t find any evidence from veterinarians or medical centers to substantiate them. She noted the higher-than-usual chlorine content in the drinking water was within safety levels and was even half of what Portland uses on a regular basis.
In fact, she noted, if the city had evidence the water was negatively impacting health, it would be a matter of importance to the city’s case against the drawdown.
“If we had ever found any validity to that, that would only strengthen our lawsuit,” she said. “It would also have given us more emergency funding. At that point, where it’s a health and safety issue, FEMA and other authorities would have to jump in.”
Young said staff also looked into reports of discolored tap water and determined some houses were, indeed, seeing some yellowing in their water. Even her own home’s tap water was discolored.

Brown water is seen at the South Santiam Fish Hatchery in January 2024. File photo

“But one of the things I think is important to understand, too, is there was never silt in the water,” she noted. “It was this weird tint that came from the vegetation and stuff that was now getting filtered through the water. Like, think of a tea bag.”
In the other lawsuit, Sweet Home and the City of Lebanon are pursuing charges related to damages to the municipalities from the effects of the drawdown. According to Young, the charges will be against USACE and, maybe, U.S. District Judge Marco Hernandez who ordered the injunction. The lawyers, she said, are still working out details.
The cities are figuring out the amount of damages that were incurred due to the drawdown, including increased costs for filtration and chlorine, increased labor costs, the necessity to retrofit Sweet Home’s water facility if drawdowns continue, and any future costs future drawdowns may incur. Young estimates Sweet Home’s costs, so far, range between $12 million and $15 million.
“But this is also going to be ongoing for a while, so we don’t know if we’re going to be including this next year’s drawdown into the damages or not,” she said.
The motion to intervene will determine that.

Concerned citizens pack the City Council Chambers in November 2023 for an information session presented largely by USACE. File photo

As for businesses that were impacted by the drawdown, Young clarified they would have to seek their own suit for damages.
In preparation for the possibility of another drawdown this summer, the water treatment plant already has a third water filter online and the water team will be ready to work ‘round the clock if necessary, Young said. The city does not expect to offer bottled water to the community, as the treated water always tests within completely safe parameters. If at any point it is considered unsafe, then the city will do something.
“We’re doing everything we can to both try to stop the drawdown and to find funding to do a retrofit for our water treatment plant,” she reiterated.