Foster Dam

Foster Dam and Reservoir aerial photo.

The operations at 13 dams in Oregon's Willamette Basin are on the verge of change.

In the next several months, a federal judge is expected to sign off on an interim plan for operating the 13 dams that make up the Willamette Valley Project.

On Jan. 18, U.S. District Judge Marco Hernandez appointed Oregon State University Professor Desiree Tullos, a dam safety expert, to examine each of the proposed operational changes recommended by plaintiffs in Northwest Environmental Defense Center et al. v. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers et al. [18-437]. Under a schedule proposed by all parties, her report to the court would be due by March 29, and the judge would hear arguments related to that report in early May.

Hernandez was also assigned to preside over another lawsuit—Public Power Council v. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers [21-32]—to determine whether the Corps can unilaterally prioritize fish over hydropower generation at Detroit Dam.

Over the next few years, longer-term solutions will be on the table, including whether to deauthorize hydropower production at three of the projects, and the development of a new EIS for the Willamette projects to determine how all of the dams will be operated in the long term, while still adhering to Endangered Species Act requirements.

It's all happening in a basin that holds nearly 70 percent of Oregon's population, including Portland, along with the state's most productive agricultural lands. It also has the only winter steelhead and spring Chinook runs in the Pacific Northwest deemed at risk of decline, according to NOAA Fisheries' last five-year status review.

The primary purpose of the Willamette Valley Project is to reduce flooding to protect people and property downstream. Since their construction between 1930 and 1970, the dams have prevented more than $25 billion in flood damages, the Corps says.

The projects are also operated for other purposes, including hydropower generation, irrigation, water quality, fish and wildlife, and recreation. Eight of the projects also generate electricity, with a total capacity of just over 400 MW.

There are no specific allocations for particular uses. According to the Corps, this joint-use allocation is unique to the Willamette Valley dams.

With increasing demands on water, the Corps completed a reallocation study in December 2019 including a recommendation to meet the needs for municipal and industrial water supply, fish and wildlife, and irrigation. That plan would allocate 1.1 million acre-feet of water to fish and wildlife; 327,650 acre-feet to irrigation; and 159,750 acre-feet to municipal and industrial uses, and no conservation storage would remain under joint usage.

WaterWatch of Oregon sued over the allocation plan last year, but on Jan. 22 voluntarily dropped the lawsuit, saying it had received most of what it wanted through modifications made to Corps' reallocation plan. Hernandez dismissed the case on Jan. 25.

In addition to a reallocation plan, the Corps is developing a new EIS for operating the dams, and is involved in consultations with the National Marine Fisheries Service, which will write a new BiOp to ensure that upper Willamette steelhead and upper Willamette spring Chinook—both threatened under the Endangered Species Act—are adequately protected.

The Corps conducted public scoping in 2019, and is now targeting release of a draft EIS in spring 2022, according to Corps spokesman Tom Conning. In an email reply to Water Power West, Conning said COVID-19 did not delay the process, but he noted that the timeline for the Willamette EIS has been fluid due to the complexity of issues and the need to ensure a thorough and transparent process.

"We expect consultations under Section 7 [of the ESA] to conclude in 2023 and then anticipate signing the Record of Decision for the EIS in the spring of 2024," he wrote.

Until that process is complete, the dams will operate under the interim operations now being reviewed by Tullos, the dam safety expert appointed by Hernandez. That case, brought by the Northwest Environmental Defense Center (NEDC), WildEarth Guardians and the Native Fish Society, claimed that the Corps failed to change Willamette Valley Project operations to prevent a continued decline and possible extinction of two listed species—upper Willamette River spring Chinook and upper Willamette River steelhead.

According to a declaration by former Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife biologist Kirk Schroeder filed in the NEDC's lawsuit, fewer than 10,000 wild Chinook return to the Willamette Basin each year, which is a fraction of the 300,000 to 450,000 adult fish that historically returned to the basin.

The declines have continued in recent decades, with the number of wild spring Chinook passing Willamette Falls dropping by 44 percent, from an average of 13,250 adult fish between 2002 and 2007 to about 7,350 fish between 2008 and 2019. About 70 percent of the Chinook returns today are from hatcheries, which "are not a substitute or a long-term conservation strategy for wild fish," Schroeder wrote.

Abundance of winter steelhead by run type is not available before 1971, he wrote, but the late winter run—those passing Willamette Falls after Feb. 15 which are considered native to the basin—have dropped by almost 60 percent, from an average abundance of 7,600 fish between 1971 and 2007, to 3,200 returning adults between 2008 and 2020.

Tullos, the court's neutral expert, will consider at least 23 interim measures proposed by the plaintiffs at Detroit, Green Peter, Foster, Cougar, Lookout, Dexter and Fall Creek dams, according to a spreadsheet of proposed operations filed in the case.

These measures include reservoir drawdowns, spilling water and turning off turbines during specific months and hours, maintaining minimum pool elevations, conducting operations to meet water temperature targets, and other measures.

Systemwide, Tullos will also consider the request to prioritize refilling Lookout Point Reservoir to maximize the opportunity for spill in the spring.

Jennifer Fairbrother, campaign and Columbia regional director for plaintiff Native Fish Society said they're hopeful that the judge will have all of the information he needs by the end of spring, and that interim measures to protect the Willamette's threatened Chinook and steelhead will be in place by summer.

"There's a legal question built into our case that we are arguing from one perspective, and the Army Corps from another, about what flexibility they have with the way these projects were originally authorized by Congress, and whether some can be curtailed in order to prioritize fish recovery," she said.

By deciding to turn off turbines at Detroit Dam this winter to aid downstream juvenile fish migration—one of the 23 interim actions being analyzed by the court's expert—the Corps already acknowledged it has that flexibility, Fairbrother said.

But that action prompted the lawsuit by the Public Power Council against the Corps filed Jan. 8. Turning off the turbines would translate to a 15 percent loss in overall annual generation from those projects, and a 60 percent loss of output during critical winter months, PPC's lawsuit says.

The council maintains that while the Corps has some flexibility in operating the Willamette Valley Project, it cannot make a decision without consulting stakeholders that has such a big impact on power generation and goes well beyond a normal variance in operations.

PPC Executive Director Scott Simms told Water Power West that in addition to the its own case, PPC is closely tracking the NEDC's case, including the measure that involves the Detroit Dam turbine shutoffs.

While on opposite sides in the debate over how much flexibility the Corps has to operate the Willamette projects, Simms and Fairbrother are both pleased the Corps is analyzing the impacts of deauthorizing power production at Detroit, Cougar and Big Cliff dams, and will report back to Congress in two years. That direction was authorized by Congress in the Water Resources Development Act of 2020.

Simms previously told Water Power West that PPC believes deauthorizing power generation at the three projects will save customers hundreds of millions of dollars in avoided capital and operations and maintenance expenditures.

And to Fairbrother, removing power from authorized uses would go a long way toward helping salmon and steelhead in the McKenzie and North Santiam rivers. "It's also the start of a larger conversation about whether power on the whole is a continuing usage of these projects," she added.

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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.