Groups draft letters to judge regarding dam drawdowns

As political leaders feel pressure from its citizens regarding the impact the Green Peter drawdown has had in their communities, a coalition of city, county and state leaders drafted a letter to Judge Marco Hernandez urging him to consider modifying his injunctive orders.

Willamette Riverkeeper, one of the environmental organizations responsible for the lawsuit against the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers, also drafted a letter with their concerns.

Both letters, dated Dec. 8., are below.

Letter from coalition

Dear U.S. District Judge Hernandez,

We are writing to express the growing concerns within our communities regarding the
management of our dams, especially after witnessing the negative impacts of the deep
drawdowns at Green Peter Dam and Lookout Point Dam.

While we know the full impacts of these drawdowns are still unfolding and may well reveal additional concerns as sediment continues to be carried downstream, what we’ve witnessed is enough to urge your reconsideration of your management order and to implore you to allow local communities to have a voice in the management decisions of our natural resources.

Over the past few years, the dams in the Willamette Valley have experienced various drawdowns to study the impacts of eliminating hydropower and promoting fish passage, which has raised troubling questions of the long-term goals of these management strategies while causing disruptions that have far-reaching consequences for our communities in the way of water quality, recreation and economic stability for our region.
Our state prides itself on our concern and regard for the environment, and we are no different. We also understand that your decision was made based on the available knowledge you had at the time. However, it has become increasingly apparent that the eventual outcomes of the drawdowns were more severe than what advocates had led you to believe. The deep drawdowns in particular have left a path of destruction that has outweighed any benefits that they sought to bring.

Though all drawdowns have raised valid concerns, the recent deep drawdowns at Green Peter Dam and Lookout Point Dam have had profound effects on localities such as Lowell, Lebanon and Sweet Home – impacts so drastic they have garnered widespread news coverage as community members share experiences of rivers choked with dead fish, muddy waterways, dried-up wells, tainted water, and loss of economic opportunities. Even communities further downstream, such as Albany, are experiencing higher turbidity and increased challenges maintaining safe water quality. Citizens are rightly outraged as they navigate losses and detriments to their communities when they had no say in these management decisions.

Sweet Home has seen some of the worst consequences, with local businesses reporting a sharp decline in profit since the deep drawdowns occurred due to a loss of tourism. Additionally, the City’s three water plant employees worked many 24-hour days in November just to keep up with the drastic turbidity levels threatening Sweet Home’s water needs. Even with drastic measures and extra chemicals to treat the water, citizens are still experiencing tannin-tainted water, which many question the safety of drinking – a far cry from their typical, award-winning community water supply.

Lebanon is also running its water plant as hard as they can to meet demand, and are having to use roughly four times the normal amount of chemicals to treat the water. There has been nearly three feet of silt built up in the membranes’ sediment ponds since October (compared to 4-6 inches average per annum), which speaks volumes to the drastic reduction in longevity the membranes will have before incurring a $3,000,000 to $5,000,000 replacement cost for the City. While Lebanon has still been able to provide water for its inhabitants – albeit barely, it’s worth noting that if this level of treatment was required prior to 2018 when the city’s new treatment plant came online, Lebanon would not have been able to supply clean water to the community.

Lowell similarly is registering unprecedented levels of sediment in their incoming water supply due to the deep drawdown at Lookout Point Dam – tracking 75-90% increases while having to restrict their plant to 50% of its standard capacity. The city is looking at needing to impose water conservation measures by spring if turbidity does not abate, and will also be forced to pursue costly retrofits to their treatment plant to mitigate sediment in the future, with costs up to $1 million. Further out of town numerous residents depend on wells for water – many of which have run dry due to the drastically lower water levels in the reservoir, forcing residents to spend tens of thousands of dollars each to drill deeper wells. Similar to the drawdown at Green Peter Dam, residents in Lowell have observed a significant increase in the number of deceased fish in the nearby Dexter Reservoir.

Another prime example of negative impacts to tourism comes from Detroit, where reservoir management changes and lowered pool levels have added extra strain as the community’s struggles to recover from the devastating destruction of the Labor Day fires of 2020. The need to maintain – if not grow – tourism levels to promote sustained recovery is vital, and shortening the recreation season will only delay meaningful recovery and compromise the effectiveness of the millions of dollars invested for that effort. Marion County is actively pursuing excavation plans to lower marinas as a desperate attempt to mitigate some of the impacts caused by lower pool levels and a shortened recreation season, but even those efforts raise the ire of environmental advocates.

Citizens are being left at the mercy of decisions made by people far removed from our communities; decisions that unilaterally prioritize select needs while ignoring others completely. These decisions are compromising populations of some fish, in the name of trying to save others. To protect some spawning grounds, while disrupting other fish habitat. Reducing a clean and reliable form of energy and water management, while claiming to be for the benefit of the environment. Causing such drastic and costly impacts for our communities to perhaps result in a negligible positive impact on a single species of fish. Approaching management decisions like this effectively leaves communities feeling helpless to manage the future of their own resources, and thus our communities themselves.

Exacerbating this frustration is the historic fact that many of our communities have already endured the economic challenge once before from the decline of the dominant industry we’ve relied on – the loss of timber due to the protection of the spotted owl. Our communities had to reinvent themselves while navigating decimated tax bases, and now face the loss of our new industry of recreational activities that have become vital for our economies. The tourism sector is threatened not only by these drawdowns, but by the uncertainty of what the future holds for these community resources, jeopardizing the economic outlook for our communities while also sustaining the costs associated with these drawdowns.

All things considered, it is understandable for our communities to feel a growing sense of frustration and disenfranchisement as we face a lack of representation in decisions that directly affect our resources. It is crucial that our voices and the needs of our communities play a role in discussions about the future management of these dams and any associated drawdowns. We believe that community input is essential in crafting effective and sustainable management strategies that balance the needs of both the environment and the people who depend on it.

In light of these concerns, we respectfully request you modify your 2021 order that led to the deep drawdowns of our dams, and prevent these negative effects happening to even more communities around our state. Our communities deserve a seat at the table in the decision­-making process regarding dam management. We believe that collaborative efforts between communities and relevant agencies can lead to more informed and equitable decisions that consider both the wildlife and the people who inhabit the surrounding area.
We appreciate your attention to this matter and look forward to the opportunity to engage in meaningful dialogue to find solutions that benefit our communities the region as a whole. Thank you for your time and consideration.


Fred Girod, State Senator, District 9
Cedric Hayden, State Senator, District 6
Jami Cate, State Representative, District 11
Ed Diehl, State Representative, District 17
Will Tucker, Linn County Commissioner
Danielle Bethell, Marion County Commissioner
Colm Willis, Marion County Commissioner
David Loveall, Lane County Commissioner
Charlie Conrad, State Representative, District 12
Roger Nyquist, Linn County Commissioner
Sherrie Sprenger, Linn County Commissioner
Kevin Cameron, Marion County Commissioner
Ryan Ceniga, Lane County Commissioner
Mayor Kenneth Jackola, City of Lebanon
Mayor Susan Coleman, City of Sweet Home
Mayor Michael Myers, City of Jefferson
Mayor Don Bennett, City of Lowell
Mayor Debbie Nuber, City of Scio
Mayor Adam Craven, City of Brownsville
Mayor Tim Kirsch, Mill City


Letter from Willamette Riverkeeper

Dear Judge Hernandez:

On behalf of Willamette Riverkeeper (WR), I am writing you today to express concerns about the deep and rapid drawdown of Green Peter Reservoir. As one of the organizations that sued the US Army Corps in 2007 because of its lack of action to recover listed fish, and settled the suit in 2008 resulting in the Biological Opinion – recovery of Spring Chinook and Winter Steelhead has been very important to us for many years.

We have the following concerns about the recent drawdown:

a) It would seem that the significant amount of turbidity in the S. Santiam River could have
been predicted, especially based on other historic drawdowns in the Willamette Basin.
While the US Army Corps has a big role in the drawdown, negative impacts could have
also been considered by those crafting the actions stemming from the most recent
lawsuit. This could have included additional consideration of every ecological variable
related to such a drawdown.

b) The impact on local communities in terms of time and effort to maintain clean and safe
drinking water has been immense. It would seem that the Federal Government should
have a role in aiding these communities for the increased effort to maintain useable
drinking water. The Corps and others should likely have considered these impacts in the
overall approach.

c) Impacts to private landowners have also been significant, with multiple accounts of
wells being affected by the drawdown. These too, if validated, should have been
considered in the overall drawdown plan.

d) WR also believes that such a fast and massive drawdown could have negative impacts
on other native species in the S. Santiam, such as freshwater mussels, and other
invertebrates. Consideration of the range of species that call the S. Santiam and whole
river system home should be paramount, and it seems possible that such consideration
of the potential impacts of a large and fast drawdown may not have occurred.

e) We also believe that pre and post drawdown monitoring of ecological conditions in the
river below the dam is important. Did either of these occur?

We have witnessed prior drawdowns over the years and do believe that they have their place in a river system that has been highly manipulated, in order to help recover native fish. In addition to significant habitat restoration and other measures throughout the basin, such drawdowns may indeed help recover native fish.

More than any organization, Willamette Riverkeeper believes we must do more for native fish and all such wildlife in the Willamette River system. At the same time, we must be cognizant of potential unintended consequences that, over time, have the potential to make the overall job of salmon recovery harder for all of us.

This includes impacts on local communities. People in such communities should be pulling for the health of the river system, instead of being subject to actions that only make working together for the common good more difficult over time.

With these points in mind, it may be worth reconsidering how the US Army Corps approaches any future drawdowns, with additional opportunity for organizations and the local community to weigh in on the path forward.

Thank you for your consideration.


Travis Williams, Riverkeeper & Executive Director