FILE — Oregon Detroit dam

The Detroit Dam sits on the North Santiam River and is 45 miles northeast of Salem, Oregon.

(The Center Square) – The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers must make immediate, sweeping changes to 13 Oregon dams to better preserve salmon runs, a federal judge has ruled.

Each of the hydropower dams standing on the Willamette Valley's North Santiam River were built by the Flood Control Act of 1938 between the 1940s and 1960s. The structures long have been blamed by environmental groups for impeding Chinook salmon and steelhead runs.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was sued earlier this year by environmental groups, including the Native Fish Society. They allege the Corps failed to meet the terms of its 2008 biological opinion or legal settlement with the National Marine Fisheries Service Corps to better accommodate local salmon runs.

Those terms included interim operational measures creating downstream salmon passages through the 13 dams by May 2011 and building a water temperature control tower at the Detroit Reservoir by March 2019. The tower has set the feds back $8 million in planning costs as of 2018 – or 10 years after the agreement was reached. The estimated costs of building it now stand at $100 million. 

The 463-foot high Detroit Dam is the largest of them and was built in 1953 with a price tag of $62.7 million – or more than $604 million when adjusting for inflation. The dam created Oregon's 400-foot-deep Detroit Lake, which spans some 9 miles and can generate 100 megawatts of power; enough to light up to 40,000 homes.

U.S. District Court Judge Marco Hernandez sided Friday with the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, ordering the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to swiftly enact changes.

Among them are a deep drawdown on the McKenzie River's Cougar Dam, spring and fall spill operations at Foster Dam, landslide risk analysis associated with a deep drawdown at Lookout Point and spill operations at Lookout Point Dam and Dexter Dam.

"The Corps has fought tooth and nail to resist implementing interim fish passage and water quality measures that it was supposed to begin implementing a decade ago, and that NMFS has been recommending for years," Hernandez wrote.

Between 2008 and 2018, the Corps struggled to sell temperature control towers to the public. One early concept it presented to the public required a two-year drawdown of Detroit Lake to 1,310 feet above sea level to start construction, angering local farmers reliant on the dam's irrigation. 

Hernandez assembled a panel of experts in his order to advise the court in the process. They will include past and present members of the National Marine Fisheries Service, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife and an engineer from the Corps.

The Corps also must provide biannual status reports with the court, detailing its efforts to protect local Chinook salmon and steelhead. Both species have been listed as endangered by federal authorities since the late 1990s.

The Corps of Engineers and National Marine Fisheries Service have announced they are poised to complete a biological opinion by 2023. Hernandez ordered the two organizations to wrap one up by the end of 2024.

The Corps is reviewing Hernandez's opinion and is considering next steps, Corps officials said in a statement.

Staff Reporter

Tim Gruver is a politics and public policy reporter. He is a University of Washington alum and the recipient of the 2017 Pioneer News Award for Reporting. His work has appeared in Politico, the Kitsap Daily News, and the Northwest Asian Weekly.