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Posted 9/4/2018

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By Tom Conning, Public Affairs Office

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

Current affairs

PORTLAND, Ore. — Compared to his comedic-adventures in the Disney/Pixar movie “Finding Nemo,” Marlin, Nemo’s dad, would have a stroke at the thought of a salmon’s journey from egg to ocean. From the beginning, the young salmon (called fry or fingerlings) and the movie’s famed clown fish have coral-ated fates because both deal with turbulent waters.

Salmon face predation and flooding inundates eggs with too much water, whereas drought leaves them dry. Human irrigation practices can dewater habitats, pollute or return water that is too warm into those environments. Likewise, harsh currents can wash fry away or leave them stranded when water levels recede, and the threats from birds and other fish never cease.

Later, the smolts head out to sea for the first time to face dangers such as waterfalls, researchers at fish monitoring facilities (no dentists or divers to worry about here), and massive barriers, which offer limited options for passage – aka: dams.

And it’ll take more than a pebble to jam the filter for the fish to escape.

Corps addresses juvenile passage at Cougar
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Cougar Dam sits astride the South Fork of the McKenzie River, approximately 50 miles southeast of Eugene, Oregon. The dam has been blocking fish passage in the river since the Corps built it in the 1960s. Salmon numbers have plummeted in this watershed and, as a result, the Corps has worked to help by improve water temperatures and supply adult fish passage upstream of the dam. However, these actions haven’t addressed moving juvenile fish downstream of the dam – until now.
The Corps has initiated an Environmental Assessment to get feedback from the public about the proposal’s potential impacts from the proposal to move these fish downstream and it will release a draft EA in early 2019. Public input will help the Corps determine the best approach, with the goal of minimizing impacts to stakeholders throughout the region. This could include lack of water for boating, fishing or swimming in the reservoir or turbidity concerns for towns that use water from the McKenzie.

One of the project construction options may require a drawdown of Cougar Reservoir. If this option goes forward, it would be the third time in 16 years* that reservoir water levels could see impacts. Corps officials recognize the effects these drawdowns have on recreators and want to minimize those potential impacts.
“We’re early on in the process and haven’t made any decisions regarding drawdown scenarios,” said Chris Budai, Portland District project manager. “We’re dedicated to meeting our environmental stewardship responsibilities, ensuring we’re getting the most fish safely downstream and minimizing the impact to reservoir and McKenzie River users.” 

A completed life cycle
The completion of juvenile passage downstream of Cougar Dam will be a culminating achievement in a years-long effort to provide safe passage for Endangered Act-listed fish. Downstream passage, plus upstream passage and water temperature control downstream projects that the Corps has already completed, is the final leg of a three-legged stool that should help recover endangered fish species.

Or, that’s what Corps officials hope will happen.

“Providing safe downstream fish passage and maintaining other authorized purposes of the dam is challenging, but salmon populations won’t improve without it,” said Greg Taylor, Portland District fish biologist. 

Failure isn’t an option
Corps officials recognize the difficulties involved in completing the project. They also know that failing to protect these endangered fish is not an option. Public input on the proposal will be key in helping the Corps develop an approach that will protect the fish, while keeping conservationists, anglers, water supply users, etc. informed and comfortable about the topic.

“Collecting and passing juvenile salmon over a 450-foot-tall dam is not easy,” said Kevin Brice, Portland District deputy district engineer.

“It’s not easy biologically, engineering-wise or operationally,” Brice said. “However, we are committed to making this project successful. High-head dam passage is a new challenge for the Corps and we’re proud to be leading the way for the good of the environment, the citizens of Oregon and the nation.”

Which, leads to another link to “Finding Nemo” – some advice for the Corps from Dory, the forgetful side-kick, “When life gets you down, you know what you gotta do? Just keep swimming, just keep swimming…” 

*The Corps conducted a drawdown in 2005 to build a temperature control tower, in 2015 for emergency wood removal at the tower and a proposed drawdown in 2021 to complete the downstream fish passage project.