Eugene City Councilor Ward 8

Finding safe passage

30 September 2021

 Randy Groves

A perspective from Councilor Groves: While I support the preservation of our rivers, streams, fish, endangered species and native habitat, we must recognize that reducing our capacity to produce renewable hydroelectric energy will have an impact on our electrical grid capacity and stability. As we discuss Eugene's Climate Action Plan (CAP 2.0) and the push for more electrification as our primary source of energy, we must understand the impacts of these decisions. A part of our discussion must include how to improve efficiency.

Finding safe passage

Does turning off dams to save fish make sense?

Bill Poehler Salem Statesman Journal USA TODAY NETWORK

What would happen if the turbines at Cougar, Detroit and Big Cliff dams were turned off for good. Since the 1950s, water passing through the dams has provided electricity for hundreds of thousands of homes and businesses throughout Oregon.

But the dams also have cut off native habitat for environmentally threatened species of fish like salmon and steelhead, preventing them from migrating up and down the North Santiam and McKenzie rivers.

In the past few years, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which operates the dams, has come under scrutiny from environmental groups and courts after missing benchmarks for providing passage for fish around the dams.

Now, Congress has ordered the Corps to study what would happen if those turbines were no longer in operation.

The Corps has made operational changes through the years in accordance with court orders, but turning off the turbines is something they can’t do on their own.

U.S. Rep. Kurt Schrader said there are compromises to be found.

The Cougar Dam Powerhouse in the Cascades on the McKenzie River east of Springfield.



“The Corps, poor folks there get beat up on everything they try,” U.S. Rep. Kurt Schrader said. “The environmental community doesn’t like anything, which I think is sad.

“We’re trying to engage the environmental community, the fish community, the ag community, the municipal community in a more productive discussion going forward. I just don’t see this … as a zero-sum game. I think there’s a way for all of those interests to be met to some degree, not entirely.”

To turn them off or leave them on

Producing power at the dams was authorized by the Flood Control Act of 1950, and it would take another act of Congress to turn them off.

Last winter, the Corps agreed to shut off the turbines at Detroit Dam eight hours per day from November through February to aid fish passage.

At Cougar Dam, the Corps has been ordered to turn off the turbines at similar times this winter for the same purpose.

In a district court ruling handed down by Judge Marco Hernandez in a lawsuit by environmental groups against the Corps, the Corps was ordered to use lower regulating outlets for temperature control purposes and lower elevation, which will reduce the amount of electricity it can produce through the turbines.

Native Fish Society conservation director Jennifer Fairbrother said that the Corps has been hesitant to pursue such radical measures like turning off the turbines because of the congressional authorization.

“We got part of the way there with the system that we needed to, but we need to remove those constraints,” Fairbrother said.

The primary purpose of the dams is flood control, but they’re also authorized for navigation, irrigation and power production.

The Corps has operated under the goal of optimizing power production at the dams for years.

3 dams don’t produce much power

The three dams produce a trickle compared to the amounts of electricity the dams on the Columbia and Snake rivers produce and sell to the Bonneville Power Administration.

Detroit produces 100 megawatt hours, Cougar produces 25 and Big Cliff produces 18.

Dams in the Columbia like John Day (2,160 megawatt hours), The Dalles (2,100) and Bonneville (558) produce far more because they have more turbines.

Bonneville combines it all and resells it to anyone needing power.

“It’s a single system mix,” Ted Case, executive director of the Oregon Rural Electric Cooperative Association, said. “You don’t say, ‘I want to get the power from Grand Coulee, I don’t want to get it from Cougar.’ We get it from Bonneville.”

According to Oregon Utility Statistics, 31,085,346 megawatt hours were sold to retail customers in Oregon – including investor-owned utilities like Portland General Electric and Pacific Power, municipal customers like Monmouth and co-ops like Salem Electric and Consumers Power Inc.

The electricity produced in the Willamette River basin, including from Detroit and Cougar, cost $30.07 per megawatt hour in 2020 to produce, according to a federal assessment, while the power from other hydroelectric sources the BPA purchases from costs $12 per megawatt hour.

Those Willamette River basin prices are going to increase in the coming years, too, to cover increased costs to help the threatened fish species.

The most recent estimates by the Corps of Engineers, in 2018, was it would cost $100 million to $250 million to construct the fish passage and temperature control tower it proposed at Detroit Dam to come into compliance with the 2008 BiOp, a legal settlement and long-term salmon recovery plan.

Those costs mean the Corps and BPA are on the hook to help fund fish passage and other measures to ensure the survival of fish species at the dams.

“They share costs across the Willamette Valley project,” Corps spokesperson Tom Conning said.

Different sides in agreement

Environmental groups and power companies don’t always agree about issues, especially when it comes to dams.

But in this case, they do.

Environmental groups say turning the turbines off would benefit threatened species like Upper Willamette River Chinook salmon and steelhead, which were listed as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act in 1999, by increasing downstream passage, water quality and flows.

With the turbines off and water levels lower, fish would be able to pass downstream more easily and have a greater chance of survival.

“At Cougar, we believe that could be a long-term way of successfully providing better migration of juvenile fish in a way that is more efficient than collecting the fish and trucking them around the reservoir,” Fairbrother said. The Corps has frequently argued in court it lacked the authority to stop producing power at the dams as it was required by the 1950 congressional authorization to produce power.

But in recent rulings, Hernandez said that argument is faulty and the power generation authorization is flexible when it is harmful to the survival of fish species.

“We’ve had a lot of conversations with the Bonneville Power Administration, and I think they have come to the conclusion that the power is not perhaps as important to their mission across the grid,” Schrader said.

“They have other hydroelectric sources that are probably more important and they’re trying obviously to work closely with the different states, including Oregon, in the fish passage issue, and frankly they’re on the hook for a lot of the fish passage stuff.”

Unseen risks of shutoffs

But even with that consensus, eliminating electricity production at the dams may not be as straightforward as it sounds. The current system does have some benefits.

Conning describes a few cities as being “islanded” with a dam.

In other words, a city like Blue River is set up to use Cougar Dam as a backup electricity source in an emergency.

And the electricity produced at the Willamette Basin dams is needed most at peak times, such as early in the morning and in the early evening.

“The power in the Willamette Valley is kind of the grid stability, and the ability to generate when there’s more need to generate with the grid,” Conning said.

But Congress may not give them the option.

But will it happen?

The Corps expects to send the preliminary report to the Assistant Secretary of the Army and the Regional Integration Team by the end of 2021, according to Conning.

After their feedback, the Corps will submit its final report in 60-90 days to Congress to meet the January 2023 deadline.

Among the items the Corps has to report about are how deauthorization would impact the project, including operations, compliance with the Endangered Species Act, costs and studies of the system.

After that, Congress could vote to keep the turbines spinning or to turn them off.

“We’re all trying to give a little,” Schrader said. “Climate change is real, and we’re going to have to figure out what do we need to do, but I think eliminating the power requirements there might be a big, big step of breaking some of the logjam and showing folks that we can actually work together and we have common interests.”

Bill Poehler covers Marion County for the Statesman Journal. Contact him at bpoehler@statesmanjournal.com or Twitter.com/bpoehler.

Water flows from Detroit Dam in November 2020.


Copyright © 2021 The Register-Guard 9/30/2021

Randy Groves