You may not be noticing it yet but water supplies in western Oregon are under intense pressure. More and more people continue to move to the region, and both farmers and fish need a steady water supply for their survival.
Last week, we heard about a project that might draw water from the Willamette River, to meet the demand from cities in Yamhill County.
Today, Rob Manning reports on another ambitious plan. This one would build a new dam – at the same place where one was removed 20 years ago.
This is a story about a high valley in the Coast Range, in the mountains west of Salem. Decades ago, this valley was home to more than a thousand timber company workers for Boise Cascade.
Rod Shepard was a Boise manager in 1986, when the timber economy plummeted. He was here when the town of Valsetz closed.
Rod Shepard: “It was like all of the mills in the early ‘80s that they shut down for one reason or another. This one happened to have a town with it, which had a lot of emotion that went along with it than the other mill shutdowns. But, uh, the stores, they had a store manager, the bowling alley, the company owned all of it, and they chose to take it down.”
Go back another hundred years and this valley was an old growth forest. Since then, it’s been logged over, filled with water, and seen countless timber jobs come and go.
Yet while Valsetz disappeared, other towns in Polk and Lincoln counties have grown. The timber company that owns the property now, Forest Capital, has identified the area as non-productive.
But Polk County commissioner Mike Propes says there is one natural resource it’s still good for. The Valsetz valley receives as much as 140 inches of rain a year. Propes says it’s the perfect place to put a reservoir.
Mike Propes: “We could use water basically everywhere in Polk County from this site, because, with an inter-tie system, we can reach anywhere in the county. Our systems would be fairly easy to tie together. Now, easy, means you have to figure out a way to pay for them.”
Propes is hoping that the unique characteristics of the Valsetz site hold the key to funding. He says water could be drawn in two directions – downhill to the east on the Luckiamute River to Polk county. And down to the west on the Siletz to Lincoln County. Costs would then be shared by the two counties.
To do all that the reservoir would need to have more surface area than Detroit Lake.
Mike Propes: “If the project goes through, the new reservoir would raise approximately 100 feet, which would cover this whole valley, substantially larger than the old reservoir and lake site. The old town site would be underwater. All the alders that you’re looking at there. It’s going to back up about five miles.”
What Propes calls the “old lake” emptied twenty years ago. That’s when engineers condemned and removed a dam far smaller than the one Propes is suggesting for the exact same spot.
Filling the wetland would mean evicting some residents. But this time, they’d be folks with four legs. Longtime forestry manager, Rod Shepard points out the biggest ones through his binoculars.
Rod Shepard: “The elk that are grazing out across the flat, the two that are moving are spike elk, and then back behind them, the one you can barely see one that’s laying down, and that’s a bigger antlered bull. And the best I can tell the ones off to the side, are cows and calves.”
If the dam project goes through, the fate of the elk is a concern of fish and wildlife officials. Another is what will become of fish that have gotten used to migrating up and down a free-flowing Siletz River.
Rod Shepard: “This is the headwaters of the Siletz River, south fork….”
Rod Shepard says years ago, there was a fish ladder for the salmon and steelhead that swam here. That was taken out with the dam. County commissioner Mike Propes says if the project starts moving, they’ll find the best way to protect fish.
Mike Propes: “What’s the trade-off? Do you spend more money on fish ladder, or more money raising the reservoir more to have water for in-stream? And those are questions that we don’t know yet.”
Fish and wildlife officials have been briefed on the project, but haven’t done a lot of research so far. Bob Buckman is a state fish and wildlife manager based in Lincoln County.
Bob Buckman: “The most straightforward concern is that the dam would cut off I guess, just eyeballing it on a map, approximately 15 miles of salmonid stream, anadromous fish stream. It would be difficult to get fish passage over a reservoir of this type, not impossible, but very difficult.”
Buckman says downstream fish could be jeopardized by changes in flow and water temperature, and the loss of sedimentation.
Much of the Siletz watershed, is in the historic homeland of the Siletz tribe. At least for the time being, tribal leaders support the project.
Siletz representative, Craig Dorsay, says the tribe is concerned about fish passage. But he says lack of drinking water is already a problem for tribal property in Lincoln City and in the town of Siletz.
Craig Dorsay: “ The way it’s played out is these cities have said they can’t promise the tribe a water supply to supply the property. It’s caused a little hesitation in going forward, the tribe has gone forward with all those developments. The cities have informed us that the issue is only going to get worse.”
The next step before much else can happen, is up to Lincoln County. Officials got a state grant to study water supply, population growth, and get a cost estimate of a new Valsetz’ dam.
Back on the ridge overlooking the Valsetz valley, Polk county commissioner Mike Propes says he’ll help with that study. And in fact, he's depending on Lincoln County.
Mike Propes: “If we were to do a site like this, we could not pay for it on our own. There would have to be Lincoln County have the same type of needs that we have, and partner on it. If they don’t have the same type of needs, this site would not work for us, because there would be no way we could afford it.”
Even the most vocal of supporters see a dam at Valsetz being at least ten years away from construction. But they say they have to start now, so that when water supplies get really tight, they’ll already be moving along.
Fish advocates are only just learning of the proposal, and are so far skeptical. But they say they wouldn’t be surprised if the Valsetz dam project becomes just one of a number of brewing conflicts between cities and fish, over water.