Eugene Weekly : Coverstory : 12.3.2009


What’s All the Dam Fuss About?
Army Corps plays with Willamette water flows
By Camilla Mortensen

Green Douglas firs where the waters cut through.

Down her wild mountains and canyons she flew.

Canadian Northwest to the ocean so blue,

Roll on, Columbia, roll on.

Roll on, Columbia, roll on.

Roll on, Columbia, roll on.

Your power is turning our darkness to dawn,

So, roll on, Columbia, roll on.

— Woody Guthrie

No one ever wrote a song about the wonders of the 13 dams on the Willamette River. Somehow the joys of flood control navigation, irrigation and recreation (despite the handy built-in rhyme scheme,) never lent itself to a chorus of “So roll on, Willamette, roll on.”

Back in 1941, the Bonneville Power Administration’s plans to get clean power from Oregon rivers and bring electricity and light to rural areas sounded like a great idea to Woody Guthrie and others. It probably seemed like less of a good idea to the Native Americans who lost lands and fishing, and it turned out to be a pretty bad idea for Oregon’s native salmon.

The dams on the Middle Fork of the Willamette, built in the 1940s and 50s just outside of Eugene, also turned out to be salmon stoppers. Constructed by the Army Corps of Engineers for power as well as for flood control, they created barriers that to this day prevent salmon from making their way upstream to spawn. According to Greg Taylor, U.S. Army Corps fisheries biologist for the Willamette River Project, there are “typically less than 100 wild fish that we document each year” that return. In other words, the endangered spring Chinook salmon that used to return to the Middle Fork of the Willamette and the streams that feed it each year by the thousands are pretty much gone.

Recent dam removals on the Rogue River may have spawned hopes that someday the Willamette could once again run free and unfettered, but according to Mindy Simmons, the Army Corps’ Willamette Project program manager, “We aren’t discussing dam removal at this time at all.”

So if the Willamette River isn’t going to be turned loose, and if the Middle Fork of the Willamette, which is thought to have once hosted one of the largest salmon runs in the upper Willamette basin, is essentially a wild salmon wasteland, then why is the Army Corps of Engineers teaming up with The Nature Conservancy to change the way the river flows as part of their “Sustainable Rivers Project”? The alliance will experiment  with the way the Corps manages flows of water from the dams to see if it might alter the future for the fish and the river’s ecosystem.

With TNC’s reputation for bowing to big business and the Corps’ bedraggled renown for bad projects like the “monumental negligence” that led to the flooding of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, it’s hard not to look at that particular pairing without some skepticism. But can the unlikely pairing improve the river, or is the Sustainable Rivers Project a greenwash scheme to make dammed rivers look better?

It’s the Willamette – Dam It

The Willamette River is not so much a singular waterway as several rivers that meet up to join together to form one river. The curiously named North Fork of the Middle Fork of the Willamette starts at pristine Waldo Lake high in the Cascades, then joins the Middle Fork near Oakridge. The Middle Fork joins with the Coast Fork just south of Eugene to form the main stem of the Willamette. Twelve miles downstream of that, just north of Eugene, the McKenzie River joins in. Thirteen tributaries in all form the Willamette, which itself is a tributary of the Columbia River.

Thanks largely to the dams, upper Willamette basin spring Chinook salmon and winter steelhead in rivers in the basin from the McKenzie to Middle Fork Willamette are listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.

Not only did the dams built on the Middle Fork block fish passage to 124 miles of habitat, the dams also affected river habitat downstream by changing flow patterns — seasonal flooding that created side channels, alcoves, and other stream features that provide important fish habitat was reduced. The movement and deposit of gravel, which is essential to spawning, was also affected. 

It wasn’t just fish that were involved. The Army Corps’ efforts to control flooding, produce power and provide water for everything people want, from irrigation to navigation, changed the ecosystem. Altering the flows messed with invertebrate species like bugs as well as flood plain vegetation like cottonwood trees.

In an effort to “mitigate” the affects on fish, hatchery programs were put into place, leading to the presence of many hatchery salmon, but few natives. According to the Northwest Fisheries Science Center, hatchery salmon can create genetic risks, transmit disease to wild fish and even have behavioral issues stemming from their sterile environment with no predators, no underwater structures and a predictable food supply (in other words, they are essentially stupider than wild salmon).

Despite the fact that the native salmon population on the Middle Fork of the Willamette “is essentially an extinct run, the ESA applies to all species in the Willamette basin,” says Matt Stansberry of the McKenzie/Upper Willamette Chapter of Trout Unlimited. So the Army Corps has to try to improve salmon habitat on the Middle Fork despite the fact the wild salmon are pretty much gone.

“For years,” Stansberry says, “the wild spring Chinook have been circling the drain,” but the Army Corps at the time, he says, “dragged their feet on this while the fish were dying out.” 

In 2007, the Corps was facing a lawsuit. Because the dams “take” (aka kill) ESA listed fish, the Corps had to come up with a plan for how to operate the dams while avoiding further jeopardizing the fish. The salmon and steelhead were listed as threatened in 1999, but almost 10 years later, the Corps still had not finalized a plan. In March 2007, Willamette Riverkeeper filed an “intent to sue,” and within 60 days, the Corps produced its plan. However the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), which was consulted on the plan, concluded it wasn’t sufficient to avoid jeopardy because it would continue to reduce fish populations, and the ongoing operation of dams under the plan could cause the extinction of Chinook on the Willamette River. 

The NMFS concluded that the Corps needed to implement temperature control, flow modifications, hatchery reforms and upgrades, passage upgrades, irrigation diversion screens and habitat mitigation projects. Specific recommendations for the Middle Fork include construction and operation of downstream passage facilities at Lookout Point Dam by 2021. The NMFS also calls for habitat mitigation and improvements to river flows. That’s where The Nature Conservancy and the Sustainable Rivers Project step in.

Where Nature and the Army Meet

While the Army Corps’ dams were struggling with salmon in the Pacific Northwest, they were also mucking around with mussels in Kentucky. The Green River, also a host to a plethora of dams, is the home of 21 species of imperiled freshwater mussels with names like rough pigtoe, fanshell and ring pink. It is home as well as to the more charismatic freshwater darter, a fish that Richie Kessler, formerly with TNC and now a biology professor at Campbellsville University in Kentucky calls, “small but beautiful.” Some darter species, like salmon in Oregon, have become in endangered since the construction of the dams on the river. And 14 kinds of mussels have died out, Kessler says, because of dams that were put into place “with little concern for the ecology of the river downstream.”

The Green River was the original site of the Army Corps and TNC’s Sustainable Rivers Project after TNC determined that the fate of many of the endangered mussels and fish might be improved by restoring some of the natural fall flows of the river. A three-year experiment began in which fall flows were changed to allow for the shallower water and warmer temperatures the river needed for ecological balance. After three years, the experiment became permanent. But how do they know the project has succeeded? “Good question,” says Kessler, who stresses the need to look for “cumulative positive effects” over time.

As the implementation of the restored flows on the Green River was lauded, TNC and the Corps decided to expand the SRP to 26 dams on 11 rivers flowing through 13 states. This plan included the Middle Fork of the Willamette, and at one point the Coast Fork, though that was later dropped. Soon, they say they hope to expand the project to the McKenzie as well. Though the SRP isn’t called for in the Corps’ plan for the Chinook, if the flows improve salmon habitat, it could help the endangered fish, and maybe get the Corps out of its endangered species hole a little bit.

Some speculate the SRP is less about improving the environment and more about improving the Corps’ reputation, a disparagement with which Amy Echols of the Army Corps’ public affairs office takes umbrage: “We are not about making ourselves look better; we’re about doing the right thing for our country.”

The Hurricane Katrina disaster is not the only place where the Army Corps has taken hits for its projects and policies, though Katrina does loom large after a federal judge recently ruled that the activities of the Corps in Louisiana were to blame for some of the post-hurricane flooding that ruined property and lives. The Corps is also blamed for ravaging the Florida Everglades with its water control project there, and it is accused of both creating pork barrel projects and creating boondoggles, and of cutting corners. 

A series written in 2000 for the Washington Post revealed that the Corps spent billions on unnecessary navigation projects, had plans to drain 200,000 acres of wetlands and enacted other projects that did more harm than good. Independent investigations by the Government Accountability Office, the National Academy of Sciences and the Pentagon have all called for reform of the Corps. The Corps spent several million dollars post-Katrina to hire a PR firm to turn the negative publicity around but was criticized for spending money on press that it could have spent on helping people.

Two years ago, Sens. Russ Feingold and John McCain were able to pass legislation to make the Army Corps more accountable and transparent and reform the agency, which they said was using outdated, 20-year-old planning guidelines. But according to letters sent in November to the Council on Environmental Quality and assistant secretary of the Army for civil works, nothing has yet been done to reform the Corps. “Too many Corps projects have been plagued by safety and environmental concerns, and by accusations of wasteful spending,” Feingold wrote in a recent press release.

If the Corps was hoping that teaming up with the TNC for the Sustainable Rivers Project would make it look a little more eco-friendly, then it wasn’t counting on the distrust that many smaller environmental groups have for the nonprofit, which has been likened to an “environmental Enron.” 

The Nature Conservancy, whose president and CEO Mark Tercek is a former managing director for Goldman Sachs, made $4 million in defense contracts between 2000-2008. It has been criticized for drilling on the Texas Gulf Coast and killing endangered birds, logging some of the forests it has acquired, and for being used to “greenwash” corporations and make them appear more eco-friendly than they really are. It seems that people are nervous about how much land TNC has under its wing and what it does with it. That nervousness isn’t limited to conservative ranchers and industries that bristle on being told they can’t develop on sensitive lands; it includes enviros who don’t like seeing TNC spraying pesticides to kill weeds in Hells Canyon or compromise with big businesses from GM to Disney.


The Army Corps of Engineers’ motto translates from the French to “let us try.” And Joe Moll, executive director of the McKenzie River Trust, gives it credit for that. “The thought that an agency like the Corps — at heart a military organization with a mandate to protect property and protect water — is considering stuff like this is a huge step for conservation,” he says.

Stansberry of Trout Unlimited adds, “There are young people moving up through the ranks at the Army Corps and making better decisions.”

And just what is the Corps consid-ering? 

The Willamette is a very different river system from the Green River, but it too has fish, such as the endangered Chinook, and other flora and fauna that could benefit from changes in the way a dam-restricted river’s water flows.

The Middle Fork of the Willamette is impeded by four Army Corps dams at Hills Creek, Fall Creek, Look Out Point and Dexter. Before the dams were built, the flows of the Willamette were determined by snowfall, rainfall, temperature and a host of other factors. Now the flow of the Middle Fork below Dexter Dam is mainly determined by the Army Corps’ “rule curve,” a graph that lays out how full each reservoir can be and how much water is released and when. 

Unfortunately for fish, trees, bugs and other things that once depended on the naturally flowing river, the rule curve isn’t determined so much by what they need; it is determined by human needs like flood control, hydroelectric power (with the exception of Fall Creek, all the dams on the Middle Fork produce power, and there are plans in the works for Fall Creek to join in), irrigation, navigation and so on. 

The Sustainable Rivers Project calls for the ecosystem to be taken into consideration: “Flood plain vegetation communities: cottonwood, alder, willow, riparian communities,” says Leslie Bach, director of freshwater programs for TNC in Oregon. “We’re trying to think holistically about the river. We’re not developing this specially for Chinook salmon, though they will factor in. We’re asking, “What does the river ecosystem need?”

Floods, for one thing. Moll says, “We tend to look at spring flows and flooding as threatening and damaging, but in reality, they’re necessary.”

Bach says TNC and the Corps got a large group of experts together and came up with target flows and then tried to figure out “how those flows can be incorporated into the management of the dams.”

The experts figured out, as best they could, how the river flowed naturally, before the dams were built, and then they made recommendations for how much water the Corps could safely release to mimic those flows and improve downstream habitat, Bach says.

These environmental flows would attempt to approximate the way the water would have run normally. As Bruce Duffe, who oversees reservoir regulation and water quality for the Corps’ Portland district explains, that normally by the first of November, the agency draws down the reservoirs at Fall Creek, Lookout Point and Hills Creek to a minimal pool by putting out a flat sustained flow through September and October. But under the SRP’s recommendations, the Corps would release pulses: “Same amount of water, but with a little bit higher flows for a period, little bit lower flows for a period,” Duffe says. “But we end up in the same place.”

The idea, according to Bach from TNC, is that these pulses would more naturally mimic how the river would have filled side channels and moved gravel around, hopefully creating habitat for fish from Chinook to Oregon chubb as well as for trees and invertebrate species. The pulses began in the spring of 2008, and the river was both higher and lower than usual during the various pulses.

Some local anglers have begun to wonder if the flows are helping or hindering. Chris Daughters of the Caddis Fly Angling shop says he and other anglers “didn’t see as good insect returns, nor as good fishing” this year after the pulses. Other anglers are worried that the pulses will release sediment, possibly laced with bug-killing DDT, and muddy the waters as happened at Cougar Dam during the 2002-2004 drawdown of the reservoir there.

Greg Taylor says the sediment won’t be an issue with the SRP drawdowns. “That was a completely different situation where the river had to recut a channel in the reservoir that had filled in over time,” he says. And, Duffe says, unlike Cougar, sediment won’t be coming from the bottom of the reservoir where the DDT lurks, because the flows will be coming from the top of the pool. 

As for the bugs, Taylor says they “get a lot of concerns about aquatic inverts,” but “we’re kind of looking at this in terms of the overall ecology and what’s best for the health of the river.”

He says, “The aquatic invert populations are highly variable annually both above the dams and below the dams. It’s hard to go back and say ‘Oh, well, it was that; it was the SRP release that caused the aquatic invert population to be different in this particular year.’”

No Dam Floods

One thing the Army Corps wants you to know is that the SRP releases on the Willamette’s dams are not going to flood anybody. Duffe says the Corps will not allow the flows or pulses that are released from the dam to go above the top of the riverbank. And releases will be slowly ramped up and slowly ramped down, both for safety and to prevent the stranding of fish. 

Echols says,  “We manage the project mainly for flood damage reduction or flood risk management. We don’t use the term flood control anymore.” But as it turns out, while floods might be bad for the people and businesses that chose to build in the flood plains downstream, floods are what the Willamette’s ecosystem needs. 

Gordon Grant, a research hydrologist with the Forest Service, says, “In general, the magnitude of pulses that the system used to experience is generally far beyond what anyone is talking about ever actually implementing.” In other words, he says, the river would need a flood as big at the 1996 floods every five years in order to return to what was once normal, and that doesn’t even take into account the way humans have changed the river channel downstream.

To Grant, the Sustainable Rivers Project on the Willamette “is an important step forward,” but, he says, “Returning rivers to a more natural flow is more an article of faith than established scientific data.” 

Without a way of replicating the experi-ment, Grant says, it’s difficult to know if the project is succeeding. You would need to have six Willamette Rivers and repeat the experiment on each of them, he says, to determine if the flows were doing any good.

“If I put a flow of X down the river for Y amount of time,” Grant says, “nobody can really tell you what the consequences of that really are.” 

But everyone seems to agree that it’s worth a try. Unfortunately, without fish passage and with the dams in place, the salmon still can’t get past barriers on the Middle Fork to their old spawning grounds. And if they do make it through the one dam that has a fish passage of sorts — Fall Creek Dam where they are trapped and hauled in a truck — they often don’t survive the trip back. Will the Army Corps and The Nature Conservancy manage to improve the Willamette River’s downstream ecosystem? 

Time will tell, but as for the salmon,  the old joke goes, “What did the fish say when it hit its head against a wall?”