Think Out Loud

Army Corps examines shutting off turbines at Detroit and Cougar dams

By Elizabeth Castillo (OPB)
Oct. 5, 2021 6:41 p.m. Updated: Oct. 5, 2021 10:14 p.m.

Broadcast: Tuesday, Oct. 5

Detroit, Cougar and Big Cliff dams are primarily used for flood control. But, environmental groups have argued for years that the dams in Oregon affect salmon and steelhead. The dams can also be used to generate power, but they produce far less power than those with more turbines. Congress has ordered the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to examine the possibility of turning off the turbines at Detroit, Cougar and Big Cliff dams. Bill Poehler wrote about this issue for the Statesman Journal. He joins us with details.


This transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.

Dave Miller: Congress has ordered the US Army Corps of Engineers to study what would happen if they turned off the turbines at three dams on the North Santiam and Mackenzie Rivers for about 70 years now, the Detroit, Big Cliff and Cougar dams have been used for both flood control and power generation. But while none of them generate that much electricity, they do impede fish passage. So the thinking goes that turning off the turbines could be the most cost efficient way to help fish with minimal impact to the Northwest energy grid. Bill Poehler wrote all about this for the Statesmen Journal recently and he joins us with the details. Bill Poehler, Welcome to Think Out Loud.

Bill Poehler: Hey, how you doing?

Miller: Well, thanks for joining us. Why exactly did Congress ask the court to study what would happen if these turbines were turned off?

Poehler: I think they recognize that these are not really cost effective anymore at least not in the same way that they were at one point. You’re talking about a trickle of energy in any of these dams and we’re talking 4% of the hydropower produced in the Northwest is coming from the Willamette Basin and with these three dams specifically it’s 2%. So really the Corps of Engineers has had to keep trying to produce power to maximum output because that’s a congressional authorization. Now they’re losing some lawsuits so they’re resistant to making any actual functional changes. And because they have congressional authorization. So now Congress, specifically Peter DeFazio and Kurt Schroeder, the representatives in this area and the Eugene area, are saying, hey, this is going to make some more sense if we start looking to turn these things off. And if they don’t do it, these fish species could be extinct if they don’t get it done enough time.

Miller: So there are a couple different pieces here. And one of them that you started with is energy generation. Can you put the electricity generated from these three dams in the context of the much larger dams on the Columbia or Snake Rivers?


Poehler: Sure. Just say Detroit; it makes 100 megawatt hours a year. And that’s before they had to make operational changes last year because the Corps keeps on losing all these lawsuits. So last year, they basically had to cut off some of the power production during peak times because they had to allow for fish passage. The Corps loses these lawsuits and it’s like watching a story of a sports franchise that just keeps getting beat. So they’re cutting back and cutting back there. Doing the same thing with Cougar this year. Cougar makes about 25. Big Cliffs makes about 18 according to the Corps. And we compare that with John Day Dam. They’re making 2000. We look at Grand Coulee, you’re making 7000 megawatt hours. So we’re talking just a tiny bit here. They’re making enough power at these dams that it’s still making some money. But it’s in a way, it’s also costing a lot of money because they’ve got to pay for all these fish passages while making all these demands.

Miller: And that’s the price there is immense. You noted that as of 2018--and so the price probably could have gone up since then--the Corps estimated that it would cost between $100 million $250 million to be in compliance with legal settlement and salmon recovery plan just for one of these, just for the Detroit Dam. So it is part of the thinking here that at a certain point it would simply be cheaper for the Corps and Bonneville Power Administration to simply stop operating these dams?

Poehler: Well, the Corps has to operate them. They are there for flood control, that’s the primary function of these and those dams have saved, I’m just gonna guess, hundreds of millions of dollars and thousands of lives over the course since the 1950′s. But these other operational items that they’ve been tasked with like hydropower and storage reservoir water, which never actually happens, but they’ve been operating those like that’s the primary thing. too. But really it’s the flood control. So I don’t know if you can never stop operating these dams because they are federally done and they’re federally funded and federally authorized. That’s where you get into these like areas of, oh, Congress said you can do this. Congress said we had to do this. So Congress is the one who’s going to have to tell us that we aren’t going to have to make power there anymore.

Miller: So this is an important point here. What Congress asked the Corps to do is simply say what would happen if they stopped operating these dams as hydroelectric power plants-- stopped turning the turbines-- as opposed to saying what would happen if we breach them, if we took them down, like what happened on the Elbow River in Washington 10 years ago or which is in process for a series of dams on the Klamath River. We’re not talking about breaching, simply not getting power?

Poehler: Right. And there could be a time when some of these dams are like a Big Cliff, it is a re-regulating dam. And its primary thing is to make power at Big Cliff. That one could go away. I guess it would cost, I don’t know, hundreds of millions of dollars. Detroit though, you’re still going to have to do the flood control because we’re in a valley and you know, y’all probably don’t see it as much up there in Portland, but down here when it rains really hard, like it does today, you get this for a couple of weeks and you’re going to start to get some warming in the mountains and some runoff. You’re going to get the water levels up pretty high and it can start to hit the riverbanks down on the North Santiam on the Mackenzie, all of them. It can start hitting pretty hard and that’s where you risk some flood damage if you don’t have these dams. We could see some of these where the power production is just such a minor part of it that that can go away and the world ain’t gonna end. But at the flood control, eh! But at the same time they keep on losing all these lawsuits about the survival of the native species of fish and the ecosystems those fish support so much that they’ve got to do something, they have to make some changes. That’s why they’ve been making these minor changes in the last couple of years, which is basically cutting back how much they’re using the turbines.

Miller: Often sending something to a state legislature or to Congress for them to study it is a way for lawmakers to just seem like they’re doing something without actually ever doing something. But do you get the sense that there’s actually political will right now to have the Corps shut these turbines off?

Poehler: I do. And it’s, it’s kind of the Homer Simpson theory of you’re almost almost darned if you do and darned if you don’t because if you don’t turn them off, hey, we’re still making power and we still have justification and you know, Congress didn’t tell us to turn them off. If Congress tells us to turn off, turn them off, then we create another problem. Like we leave little little cities like say Thin Rock or areas that may not have backup power generation for the area. One way or the other, this study will get to Congress and people will figure out if these dams are really worth the money that we’re having to put into it for the power that they’re producing and selling to BPA. Are they really making money on that? And then are we as consumers getting enough benefit out of what we’re paying for it? And I say that as consumers and I don’t say that myself because I have solar so I don’t have to worry about that. What can I say?

Miller: Bill Poehler, thanks for joining us today, appreciate it.

Poehler: Absolutely take care of you too.

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