Cougar Dam Temperature Control Tower

Cougar Dam temperature control tower during a drawdown in 2012 so the District could remove debris inhibiting gate movement.

A minor provision in a major spending bill that passed Congress Dec. 21 and was later signed into law may be the first step in removing power generation from federal obligations at three of the Willamette Valley Project's 13 dams.

The provision has support from both public power and salmon recovery advocates.

The omnibus bill includes $900 billion in coronavirus stimulus funds and $1.4 trillion to operate the federal government through Sept. 30, 2021.

It also contains unfinished legislation, including the Water Resources Development Act of 2020, a bipartisan bill that authorizes studies and projects to be completed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Among those studies is a provision for the Corps to analyze deauthorizing hydropower as a purpose for operating the Cougar and Detroit dams, along with Big Cliff Dam, a re-regulating dam that operates in conjunction with Detroit.

The three projects collectively produced 49 aMW in fiscal year 2019, a total of 428,200 MWh, Corps spokesman Tom Conning said in an email to Clearing Up. Specifically, Detroit Dam generated 30 aMW; Cougar Dam generated 11 aMW; and Big Cliff generated 8 aMW.

"We've got to do something about these Willamette projects," Scott Simms, executive director of the Public Power Council, told Clearing Up. "They are very costly and potentially more costly in the future."

Unlike the lower Snake River dams, he said, they don't produce a lot of energy, and they can't be easily scheduled into the grid.

In a follow-up email, Simms said the projects are among the costliest in BPA's portfolio, and that the expected long-term costs will be more than five times higher than the Federal Columbia River Power System's hydro projects as a whole. "Moreover, there are pending efforts to address fish mitigation at these projects—with a potential price tag of more than $1 billion," he wrote, later adding, "PPC has determined that deauthorizing power at these two uneconomic projects will save customers hundreds of millions of dollars in avoided capital and [operations and maintenance] expenditures."

Simms said the provision that passed Congress has been a primary focus of PPC's lobbying efforts because deauthorizing the projects could improve competitiveness of BPA's resources and enhance the value of the federal system for preference customers. President Donald Trump signed the bill on Dec. 27.

A decision to actually deauthorize the projects would have to come later, he noted. Congress would decide whether to deauthorize, after getting the Corps' report.

Jennifer Fairbrother, conservation director for the Native Fish Society, said her group also supports the measure. "It's pretty exciting, in my line of work, when what I'm advocating for lines up with another stakeholder group that has another focus and purpose. We both see benefits here, and I think that is a pretty powerful statement to be made on what's happening on the Willamette," she told Clearing Up.

Fairbrother said breaching or removing the projects would be unlikely due to the significant development within the floodplain downstream, and because the reservoirs provide municipal water.

She said deauthorizing power generation at the three projects would give the Corps more flexibility to help juvenile fish—especially threatened Upper Willamette River spring Chinook and steelhead—move past the dams with methods such as deep drawdowns. The Corps already traps adult fish and brings them upstream to spawn, but there's no reliable way to get the juvenile fish back downstream at survival rates high enough to ensure recovery, she said.

The Native Fish Society is one of three plaintiffs in the U.S. District Court case Northwest Environmental Defense Center et al. v. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers et al. [18-437], which alleges the Corps was not acting quickly enough to complete measures to recover the Endangered Species Act-listed upper Willamette spring Chinook and steelhead.

In August, U.S. District Judge Marco Hernandez agreed, ruling the Corps had missed numerous deadlines from its 2008 BiOp designed to aid the threatened fish. That case is in the remedy phase, which will determine interim measures for operating the dams while a new consultation is underway, and a BiOp is being developed.

Fairbrother said the Corps has operated the dams under the assumption it must optimize power production, although after the federal judge's ruling, the agency agreed to shut off turbines at Detroit Dam for eight hours a day through the winter to help juvenile Chinook survival.

"It's a very complex system, when managing this many dams," Fairbrother acknowledged. "By deauthorizing power, you essentially remove one piece of the many things that the Corps is trying to operate, which gives them more flexibility."

Flood control is another primary purpose of these dams, and Fairbrother said it's doubtful the dams would be removed if power generation is no longer a primary purpose, although that could be a possibility at re-regulating dams such as Big Cliff.

Fairbrother said the first step is for the Corps to analyze the impacts of removing power generation from the dams' priorities, and provide Congress with a report. "Then we need to be looking at seriously considering deauthorizing power on the whole system," she said, noting that the dams on other Willamette River tributaries would continue to impede salmon and steelhead recovery.

However, she added, "This is a huge step towards recalibrating how the Willamette project is operated to benefit the recovery of salmon and steelhead."

In addition to hydropower generation, the primary purposes for Detroit, Cougar and Big Cliff dams are flood risk management, water quality improvement, irrigation, fish and wildlife habitat, and recreation. Big Cliff Dam regulates power-generating water releases from Detroit Dam.

The bill seeks "a report providing an initial analysis of deauthorizing hydropower as a project purpose at the Cougar and Detroit Dams project," and only names Big Cliff re-regulating dam as part of the definition of Detroit Dam.

The act says the report will include a description of potential effects of deauthorizing hydropower at Cougar and Detroit dams on the project operation, including with respect to other authorized purposes; compliance of the project with the Endangered Species Act; costs that would be attributed to other authorized purposes of the project; and other ongoing studies in the Willamette River basin. It is also to identify further research needed.

In his email, Simms said there's a big difference between deauthorizing Cougar and Detroit dams, and proposals to breach the lower Snake River dams. In mid-November, PPC issued a white paper on the value of the Snake River dams which provides some comparisons with the Willamette Valley Project.

Altogether, the nine Willamette Valley Project dams that generate electricity produce 184 aMW, which is less than 4 percent of the FCRPS, the white paper states.

The four lower Snake River dams produce 1,000 aMW, with well over 2,000 MW of sustained winter-peaking capability. They represent one-quarter of BPA's total reserves holding capability for most of the year.

According to the white paper, the lower Snake River dams are among the lowest-cost generating resources in the region, with a levelized cost of power at approximately $12/MWh, or $100 million per year. The long-term levelized cost of generation for the Willamette system was projected at $31/MWh in 2019, with certain projects much higher than the average and likely to increase.

Several projects have been completed to help fish at both Cougar and Detroit dams. At Cougar Dam, the Corps built a $50.5 million temperature control tower to improve downstream conditions for threatened species, and another is being planned at Detroit Dam.

The Corps has also built fish-collection facilities for trapping adult fish, which are transported by trucks to locations upstream. In addition, the agency built hatcheries to mitigate for the dams' impacts, and helps fund their operations.

Editor's note: Updated 1/5/2021 to reflect passage of the spending bill on Dec. 27, 2020.

K.C. Mehaffey covers fish issues for Clearing Up, and is editor of the NW Fishletter. She joined the NewsData writing team in February 2018. From lawsuits to scientific studies, she is enjoying the deep dive into the Columbia Basin's many fish topics.