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Posted 9/14/2018

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By Erik Petersen, Willamette Valley Project operations and project manager


In the 1930's, people from Oakridge, Cottage Grove, Springfield, Eugene, Monroe, Albany, Salem and Portland were tired of flooding in the Willamette Valley. Oregonians demanded solutions to the frequent flooding, which severely impacted travel, accessibility to homes and businesses and damaged personal and public property. They convinced politicians to address the problem with infrastructure, and drove the authorization, funding and construction of the Willamette Valley system: 13 dams that mitigate flood damages by managing perennial flood risks. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers developed this system from 1939-1969 and it has since provided immense benefits, especially with the valley’s continued, un-checked growth (by politicians, municipalities, developers, etc.) along the Willamette River.

The Willamette Valley Project prevents damages of roughly $1 billion to property on an annual basis by taking the peaks off frequent, seasonal high-flow storm events. Its reservoirs provide recreation opportunities for people, and their use positively impacts local and regional economies in a big way, approaching values of $100 million a year. While the dams block fish passage, the system provides water storage that benefits fisheries habitat and water quality on both tributaries and the main-stem Willamette during the course of summer months. The project provides enough hydroelectric power (500 megawatts) to light up a moderately sized city - but more importantly, it provides power-on-demand, and supports electrical grid stability.

Sustaining flows for fish and water quality have afforded benefits to municipalities and irrigators - they have reliable conservation season flows to meet demands of water users in all but the most extreme conditions. Stewards care for public lands and waters associated with this system, and they are intent on applying the very best science in the most efficient ways possible, not only to avoid blinking-out species, but to restore and sustain them. Recently, the Corps has worked hard to improve upstream passage for returning adult anadromous fish, and the Endangered Species Act requires us to find ways to ensure downstream passage of juveniles, so iconic species of spring Chinook and winter Steelhead can complete their life cycles. This is proving to be challenging.

By its very nature - the Willamette Valley is all about balancing competing demands - and balance depends on perspective. Most decisions affecting balance will offend the party that perceives a loss. If there’s more water during the course of the summer for fish water quality and water supply, less is available for recreation. If we conserve more water for recreation and other purposes earlier in the year, then people downstream are at more risk of flooding, and flooding jeopardizes economies, lives and property. Legal authorities, given by the U.S. Congress, guide or constrain most of the Willamette Valley system outputs - so our discretion is limited. And shifting any one output in favor of others, even for brief periods of time, can have major, unintended consequences - and may violate the law.

Having more than 30-years’ experience in U.S. Army Corps of Engineers water resources development projects, I have found that balance is hard to find, and often, equitable decisions mean people on both sides are equally unhappy. Public satisfaction in what the Corps does is transitory. Often times, people don't understand, or don’t want to understand, the complexity of balance, and second, third and fourth order impacts of changing that balance.

We need to be transparent. We need to comply with laws. We need to save fish. We need to conserve water supplies and water quality. We need to steward land and water. We need to provide recreation benefits that support local and regional economies. We need to capitalize on water movement by producing hydroelectric power. We have processes intended to show people their stake in water resources issues and allow them opportunity to inform the balance. We are responsible for managing that balance, and that means no one will be wholly satisfied - at best people can understand constraints and appreciate what they get from the system. At worst, they feel victimized by a bureaucracy in control of infrastructure that cares nothing about them, and provides them no perceived benefit.

Big water projects are complex - trade-offs are difficult. As a society, we recognized this when the dams were constructed. We see it even more now. We have the best minds in the business driving solutions to complex problems. We are trying to maintain balance while moving forward, intelligently. We are an easy target for critics. The value and merit of this system, and the sustainability it represents, however imperfect, demand we stay informed, we open our eyes to all the trade-offs, work civilly to inform decision makers, recognize that change is necessary and understand balance is imperfect. We are better for having the system here, than not.