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Posted 3/27/2018

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By Tom Conning, Public Affairs Office


Editor’s note: This article is part two of a series discussing various Corps actions in Oregon’s Willamette Valley to address Endangered Species Act-listed fish.

Uneasiness on the North Santiam

PORTLAND, Ore. — For several months, Jeff Ament has been watching tension simmer along the banks of the North Santiam River, as it churns and empties its frustrations into the Willamette River as residents voice a mix of anxieties about a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ project at Detroit Dam. 

The proposed project, a temperature control tower and fish collection facility, will provide temperature regulation and fish passage through the dam for endangered fish – and have impacts on residents throughout the watershed, from Sweet Home, Salem, Detroit and Albany. 

This project addresses a reasonable and prudent alternative recommended by the 2008 Biological Opinions for the Willamette Valley Project (further information about the 2008 Biological Opinions can be found here). Ament, Portland District project manager for Detroit downstream passage, has been working on this particular project for nine years, and is familiar with the players, the concerns – and the need for public input.

“It was easy to see the impacts of a reservoir drawdown to the local recreational economy, and while we planned to analyze water supply as part of the National Environmental Policy Act process, it wasn't easy to see the magnitude of those impacts,” said Ament. “The public comments from water users downstream gave us precise insight into those impacts, and we now understand that 250,000 people, including businesses and farmers, who desperately need water from the North Santiam River during the hot dry months of summer.”

Project begins with public input, understanding of possible threat

Project team members began reaching out to the public in December 2017 to explain the project, calm the waters and solicit feedback as part of a scoping process – a mechanism of the National Environmental Policy Act. The act requires the Corps to consider and disclose the environmental impacts of its proposed actions through an Environmental Impact Statement. Kelly Janes, Portland District environmental resource specialist, says the input has been substantial, with 198 total comments.

“We knew the local and regional economic impacts would be a major issue; however, we weren’t fully aware of the how important and complex water supply is for the North Santiam,” said Janes. “For instance, fire-fighting during the summer season was something we hadn’t considered, but we’ll now include it in our impacts analysis.”

Additionally, the Corps will coordinate more heavily than anticipated with local water supply agencies to gather more data for its analysis on water supply impacts downstream. This highlights why Corps staff working on the project make efforts to reach out to the community – sometimes they cannot fully predict or know everyone’s concerns. 

The tower proposed under the preferred alternative is similar in height to the Moda Tower, located in downtown Portland, according to Ament.

“The safest, easiest and highest-quality construction of such a tower would be to construct the entire tower in the dry; that is, draw the reservoir down for the entire construction period,” he said. “However, due to the concerns we are hearing, we are looking at ways we can construct this to minimize impacts, which could include no drawdown – a job that would be the most dangerous, difficult and expensive.”

Project may have significant impacts 
One alternative recommends a reservoir draw down of up to two years, which has alarmed Detroit residents because it would disrupt summer tourism.

“The socioeconomic and biological impacts to downstream communities must address the costs not only to government of implementing this project but also to the human community at large who will be affected by these actions,” said Valerie Zentner in her public comment to the Portland District. “Those impacts include but are not limited to: loss of business, loss of property tax revenues, depletion of public services, in addition to the additional costs related to water supply and water quality treatment.”

But a two-year drawdown isn’t the only major concern. There are other ways this project could potentially impact thousands of Willamette Valley residents, which were revealed during the public comment process.

“If we are unable to irrigate our crops like Bentgrass, Peppermint, Garlic, and Hazelnuts; our annual revenue for these crops would be cut in half; possibly more,” said Neils Jensen of Neils Jensen Farms, Inc. “This would be a monetary loss of over $2,450,000. Is the Army Corps of Engineers prepared to reimburse us for this loss, at the time the water level reaches drought conditions, and any years following that would restrict irrigation use?”

The next steps
Janes is currently reviewing comments from the public and stakeholders. Next, she will analyze the comments and provide a scoping report summarizing the major issues brought forward by commenters and how the Corps will address them in the EIS. The Corps will then publish this report on the project website.

“We’ll utilize the input as the team continues to develop a range of alternatives that meet the plan's purpose and need, and assess the environmental effects of these alternatives,” said Janes. “Eventually, we’ll have a draft EIS, which we hope to have completed in the next eight months to a year.”
“The comments we’ve received really are helping us to ensure the EIS provides the public with a clear understanding of the impacts of the project and the proposed mitigation measures,” Janes said. 

Once the draft EIS is available, the public will have another opportunity to review it and provide comments. After that, Janes and the team will finalize the EIS, which will include an explanation of how the Corps incorporated public concerns into the analysis.