News for those who live, work and play in the Santiam Canyon

Drop in lake levels causes discord

Drawdown at Green Peter roils political water

The effort by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to balance fish health with the broad range of other functions in the Willamette River system continues to pose political challenges throughout the region.

From 2017 through 2018 for example, the Corps faced withering criticism from Santiam Canyon officials and businesses when it appeared possible that Detroit Lake might be required to be virtually drained for up to two years as the Corps worked on adding infrastructure that would aid fish passage and lower the water temperature in the lake. 

Ultimately, cooler heads prevailed and the Corps moved toward solutions that would preserve the lake level — and the Canyon economic benefits that go with it.

The goal of the Corps’ project in the Willamette system is to improve threatened winter steelhead and spring Chinook salmon stocks in the Willamette basin, and the new EIS is intended to be a response to a 2008 biological opinion and court order. 

Now, as the Corps works toward a 2025 deadline for a new environmental impact statement and record of decision on the project, the political waters are churning again because of the fallout from a drawdown at Green Peter reservoir on the South Santiam River. 

Here is a look at the drawn-down Green Peter reservoir on the South Santiam. The drawdown affected downstream water quality and has raised the ire of elected officials throughout the region. Alex Paul, Linn County
Here is a look at the drawn-down Green Peter reservoir on the South Santiam. The drawdown affected downstream water quality and has raised the ire of elected officials throughout the region.                             Alex Paul, Linn County

Drawing down the reservoir in late November, an action ordered by U.S. District Court Judge Marco A. Hernandez, led to the deaths of thousands of kokanee and impacted water quality as far downstream as Albany and Millersburg. Lowering the water level below the normal winter pool water level was intended to allow young fish to migrate into the river without passing through power turbines.

Playing key roles are the office of Governor Tina Kotek, the Corps and a coalition of elected officials in Marion, Linn and Lane counties, led by state Rep. Jami Cate, a Republican from Lebanon. Charges and countercharges – and some peace offerings – have been leveled in a series of letters. Cate also submitted a guest opinion on the issue that was published in the Jan. 19 edition of The Canyon Weekly.

On Dec. 8, a coalition of elected officials, which includes Cate, state Sen. Fred Girod, the county commissioners from Marion, Linn and Lane as well as Scio Mayor Debbie Nuber and Mill City Mayor Tim Kirsch, sent a letter to Judge Hernandez which stated in part his actions “raised troubling questions of the long-term goals of these management strategies while causing disruptions that have far-reaching consequences for our communities in the way of water quality, recreation, and economic stability for our region.”

Also noted was “a growing sense of frustration and disenfranchisement as we face a lack of representation in decisions that directly affect our resources. It is crucial that our voices and the needs of our communities play a role in discussions about the future management of these dams and any associated drawdowns.”

Next was a Dec. 18 letter from Gov. Kotek to Elizabeth Wells, deputy district engineer for programs and project management with the Corps. Kotek cited some of the same concerns about working with local governments that the elected officials employed in their letter to Hernandez.

But Kotek also noted that the Corps “should have anticipated that significant turbidity and other impact would occur” in the Green Peter drawdown. Kotek also suggested implementing inter-agency collaborations between the Corps and the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) and the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW).

The Corps responded Monday, Feb. 5 with a letter to Kotek from Portland District Commander Col. Larry D. Caswell, who suggested a meeting with the governor and expressed “my appreciation for your kind offer of greater collaboration (with) the DEQ and ODFW. Caswell also said he was planning meetings with representatives of the DEQ and the ODFW. 

Kotek also received a Jan. 3 letter from a slightly different coalition of elected officials that included the county and legislative leaders as well as the additions of Detroit Mayor Jim Trett and Gates Mayor Ron Evans. The letter criticized the ODFW for its support of Judge Hernandez’s actions and noted that the agency “went even further in their advocacy, assuring the Court that these drawdowns would in fact improve water quality.”

This letter is the first to broach the subject of who is going to pay for the damages. The coalition of elected officials urged the governor to “not only advocate for the allocation of $45 million in emergency funding to cover the incurred costs communities (including the Lowell area near Lookout Point Dam) have sustained due to the turbid waters, but also to advocate for additional funding as costs continue to be assessed.”

The letter is accompanied by a small chart that estimates that the damage in Albany and Lebanon alone amounts to $15 million for the two cities. 

The governor has not yet responded to the letter, although a spokesperson in her office said she was in the process of framing one.

BACKGROUND

The US Army Corps of Engineers operates 13 dams in the Willamette River basin. Each dam provides flood risk management, power generation, water quality improvement, water supply, irrigation, fish and wildlife habitat, and recreation for the Willamette River and many of its tributaries. Nine of the Willamette Valley dams, including Big Cliff and Detroit, generate electricity from the power of water passing through the dams. Collectively, these dams can provide enough power to service about 300,000 homes (500 megawatts).

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