The trade-offs between hydropower dams and endangered salmon in the Willamette Valley have been on full display in public feedback in a series of meetings hosted by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
The public meetings took place as an operational change at two dams meant to help fish is deluging rivers with mud.
Willamette Valley residents and conservationists weighed in on the future of eight hydropower dams operated by the corps and the future of endangered salmon in three public comment sessions on Monday and Tuesday. The meetings coincide with preparation of a corps’ report to Congress on whether hydropower production should be removed at some or all eight of the power-producing dams in its Willamette Valley project.
Dams in the Willamette Basin can produce a combined 500 megawatts of clean energy, enough to power 300,000 homes, but they also impede the migration of salmon, which once returned to the basin by the hundreds of thousands and have been prized by native tribes from time immemorial.
Tribal governments and environmental organizations including American Rivers and Cascadia Wildlands support removing the hydro capacity of the dams, a change they say would help juvenile salmon migrate to the ocean where they become adults and then migrate back upstream to spawn. Under a court order, the corps is currently draining two reservoirs to historic lows to help move fish through dams.
Sarah Dyrdahl, Northwest region director for the nonprofit American Rivers, told the Capital Chronicle that the hydropower produced by the Willamette dams isn’t economical. She called the current moment “a unique opportunity to evaluate how these drawdowns move juvenile salmon and other species downstream at these facilities.”
Most of the dozens of people who commented during the meetings were area residents who want the dams to continue producing clean energy.
“If we’re going to push everything to go electric, why in the world would we even have a conversation about taking out hydroelectric power? It’s very efficient, it’s very clean, the river always flows,” said Troy Gulstrom, a pastor in Mehama, a small community near the Santiam River in Marion County.
The corps operates a total of 13 dams on the Willamette and its tributaries including the Santiam River. These dams include Green Peter Dam, Lookout Point Dam and Detroit Dam. The corps began building the dams in the mid-20th century to protect Oregon’s most-populous region from devastating floods. In addition to the hydropower production of eight dams, Detroit Lake and other reservoirs created by the dams are recreation hubs for boating and fishing.
However, the dams have blocked the migrations of spring Chinook salmon and winter-run steelhead since their construction in the 1950s and 1960s, robbing the fish of spawning grounds.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration listed both populations as threatened under the Endangered Species Act in 1999.
Congress required the corps to study the cost and effects of removing hydropower at the dams last year. It’s the second time Congress directed the agency to study the issue. The agency missed its first deadline and has instead pursued a $1.9 billion, elaborate plan to move fish around dams in trucks, OPB and ProPublica reported.
So-called trap-and-haul operations have a long history but a mixed track record in the Willamette Basin, academic research has found.
The corps’ report is due in May and will include the public comments made this week. When it receives the report, Congress may mandate more study or require agency action.
Margaret Townsend, a senior attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity, told the corps on Monday in a public session that altering hydropower dams to promote salmon would bring economic and cultural benefits to area tribes, sport fishermen and orcas, which thrive on salmon. The southern population is also listed as endangered on the federal list.
“Salmon fishing is terribly important to these basins,” Townsend said.
Critics want drawdowns to stop
Several dozen Willamette Valley residents gathered Tuesday night at the Salem Public Library for an in-person comment session. All who spoke were opposed to removing the dams’ hydropower capabilities. Angelita Sanchez, a member of the Sweet Home City Council and director of the rural activist group Timber Unity, said doing so would raise electricity prices and fail her lower-income community.
Like other speakers, Sanchez cast doubt on efforts to reintroduce salmon. She cited an Oregon State University report this year concluding that billions of dollars spent to recover native salmon populations in the Columbia River Basin have largely failed.
“The dams and hatcheries are not the sole problem these salmon are facing,” she said.
Sanchez demanded the Corps pause ongoing drawdowns of the Green Peter and Lookout Point reservoirs to historic lows, which have flooded the Santiam and Willamette rivers with mud and threatened the drinking water of Sweet Home and other municipalities. The drawdowns are supposed to help juvenile fish pass through the dams.
A federal judge in 2021 ordered the corps to improve the migration of Chinook salmon and steelhead through the dams by lowering the reservoirs. The agency began the drawdowns this year, which exposed vast plains of more than 50 years of accumulated sediment on the reservoir floors that are washing downriver, Jeff Henon, a spokesperson for the corps, said in an interview.
The Salem Statesman Journal first reported the downturn in water quality. Greg Springman, public works director for the city of Sweet Home, told the Capital Chronicle his tiny team of staff at the municipality’s water treatment plant are working nonstop to filter the sediment from the drinking water supply. The water is safe to drink, Springman said, but some residents have complained about a slight discoloration and said the water smells “like a swimming pool” because staff are applying more chlorine than usual.
Henon said the rivers will become less muddy when the corps begins refilling the reservoirs on Dec. 16. He said it’s unclear whether the drawdown is helping juvenile fish move downriver, as expected.
“We’re so early in the implementation of these changes,” Henon said. “It’s too early to look at the data and see if these changes have been a benefit to these species.”
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