Commissioners seek legal avenue to modify judge’s order

Linn County Commissioners Roger Nyquist, Sherrie Sprenger and Will Tucker unanimously agreed Nov. 21 that the county should take legal action to modify U.S. District Court Judge Marco Hernandez’s order that has led to a significant drawdown of the water level in Green Peter Reservoir.

That action has resulted in increased turbidity — suspended materials (silt) — in water in the Santiam River.

The board’s action follows a Nov. 20 meeting at Sweet Home City Hall at which an overflow crowd voiced displeasure with actions taken by the Army Corps of Engineers in response to the judge’s order.

That ruling is based on a lawsuit brought by the Northwest Environmental Defense Center, WildEarth Guardians and the Native Fish Society, seeking improved survival rates for endangered fish species. The goal of lowering the water level below the normal winter pool water level, is to allow young fish to migrate into the river without passing through power turbines.

The water level in the summer is about 1,010 feet. Average this time of year is 920 and Tuesday, the water level was 781 feet. Officials said the water level will begin going up again on Dec. 16.

Commissioners Nyquist and Sprenger attended the Sweet Home meeting.

Nyquist said the issue reminds him of the Northern Spotted Owl battles of 30 years ago.

He said the community of Sweet Home has been “stunned” by not only the water level reduction in Green Peter Reservoir, but the mud-like “turbidity” in the river.

Sweet Home has a relatively new water plant — about 10 years old — and has won several awards for the city’s quality water. City staff said that despite the increased turbidity, they have been able to produce drinking water that is well within the Department of Environmental Quality’s safety parameters. However, that has not come without a cost. Staff have to clean the water plant’s three sand filters more often and this will decrease their useful lifespans.

Commissioner Tucker said the Corps of Engineers staff are following the judge’s order and other Willamette Valley project dams at Lookout Point, Cougar and Fall Creek are undergoing similar drawdowns.

In addition to the water quality issues, the drawdowns may be associated with private wells drying up, Tucker noted.

“We live on the Santiam River and I am concerned that a gravel bar where fish spawn may now be so covered in mud that it will affect them, unless that mud is flushed away,” Tucker said.

Commissioner Sprenger said she is “ticked off” about the situation, especially since rural communities were encouraged by the government after the Northern Spotted Owl era to “reinvent themselves” and that meant tourism around area reservoirs.

She said the situation is an example of “the colliding of two worlds, the rural-urban divide.”

Chairman Nyquist said he believes the federal judge needs more balanced information about what is happening at the ground level.

“This is a reasonable and responsible thing for us to do,” Nyquist said. “We need to acquire legal counsel to present facts, a more balanced set of facts and ask the judge to modify his order.”

Sweet Home City Manager Kelcey Young attended Tuesday’s board meeting and said “this is a devastating time for us.”

She added that families are worried about what their children are drinking and small businesses are seeing a loss of income because people aren’t using the reservoirs for recreation.

The commissioners agreed time is of the essence in this matter and instructed staff to take immediate action.

In other business, the commissioners:

  • Were told by Health Officer Dr. Adam Brady that there were 69 births (32 boys and 37 girls) and 114 deaths in October.
  • Were informed by Fair & Expo Center Director Kris Barnes that activities are booming and income is up. November was busy and December is shaping up to be even busier, starting with the annual Town & Country Bazaar and Christmas Storybook Land. He said Melissa Robinson has joined the staff in client relations/event planning; Jon Brady is the new operations and events manager; and Katie Doner, has joined the facilities operations team.
  • Approved the purchase of a Ford F450 truck cab and chassis for $55,092 from Kendall Ford for the Road Department.
  • Approved a Plan Text Amendment and Zoning Map Amendment to change 10.9 acres from Farm/Forest to Heavy Industrial at the T2 wood pellet plant west of Sweet Home on Highway 228.
  • Were asked by Albany resident Barbara Theron to consider developing a detox/stabilization center for people experiencing a drug or alcohol overdose.
  • Were informed about meetings held last week by the Corps of Engineers concerning the possibility of no longer producing electrical power at Willamette Valley dams, including Foster and Green Peter dams. Reports were made by Angelita Sanchez of Sweet Home and Ron Edwards of Lebanon.

Media contact: Alex Paul, Linn County Communications Officer, 541-967-3825 or email [email protected].