Friday, November 13, 2009

Blue River and Cougar Dams

Recently I’ve been lurking around dams.  They make me feel uncomfortable.  There is something creepy about being so close to them.  It’s a visceral reaction that has no real correlation to intellectual understanding of what they are.  It isn’t a reaction to the history of dams or their environmental implications.  It’s that they are big and unnatural.  There is a lot of water blocked up behind them.  And what I know about water is that it eventually finds a way to deal with the things that block its natural flow.

I had already gotten the photos that I had come for.  I had found sites above the dam and below that gave me good information regarding the differences between the water in the two locations.  But on my way to search for the lower location on the Blue River, I saw a large wooden sign sitting in the saddle of the Y in the road that separated the lower route to the river and the high route to the top of the dam that advertised the US Army Corps of Engineers’ accomplishment.  The sign advertised a look-out point.  I couldn’t resist. 

A large U-shaped parking area cradled the top of the dam looking as if large crowds of tourists were expected to arrive to take snapshots of the dam.  One side looked out toward the downstream side showing a dry valley, a dirt road looping gracefully on the valley floor.  The other boasted a view of the bathtub ring of dirt of the low reservoir including tree stumps.  A road delineated the border between the two vastly different landscapes on top of the dam.  My truck was the only vehicle parked in the lot.

Driving down the road across the top of the dam didn’t seem right.  I walked.  On the other side a group of men worked above the gates to replace what looked like it could be a hinge.  I felt like I was somewhere I wasn’t allowed to be, trespassing to see what ordinary citizens aren’t supposed to see.  They all stopped and looked at me.  I waved and continued like I belonged there, carrying my bright orange Pelican case that holds my camera. My progress was stopped by a tall fence.  I stopped, placed my case on the ground, slowly opened it and chose my lens. 

I don’t really understand my unease.  I felt like I should be hiding.  I expected that someone was going to tell me to leave, that I couldn’t take photos of them or of the dam.  But nobody did.  It’s open to the public.  That knowledge, however, didn’t stop me from taking photos as quickly as I could so I could rush back across the dam to my truck.

The Blue River dam is an earthen dam completed in 1969 for water storage.  Its authorized uses are listed as flood control, navigation and irrigation.  (Navigation?)  Its other uses include fishery, water quality, and recreation.  (Water quality?)  Blue River dam is used in conjunction with another Army Corps of Engineers project, Cougar dam, to control the McKenzie River flows and, in turn, the flows of the Willamette river downstream.

The ‘navigation’ use is a mystery to me, and the ‘water quality’ use perplexes me.  First of all, how can water quality be a use?  But more importantly, how can they expect to have good water quality when native anadromous fish can’t pass the dam and flooding is not permitted below the dam?  Fish habitat is affected below the dam since the lack of flooding inhibits the creation of side channels and alcoves used by the spawning fish.  Gravel movement and deposition is inhibited by the presence of the dams, reducing fish habitat even more.  And, importantly, the dam affects the temperature of the water, making it less hospitable for the salmon.  For these reasons, and others, native Chinook salmon and bull trout have made their way to federal lists under the Endangered Species Act.

After leaving the Blue River dam, I drove to its companion structure, the Cougar dam.  This dam is even creepier.  Downstream of the dam are the remnants of the original fish passage plan.  It didn’t work and has long ago been abandoned.  Directly behind the ghost town of a fish passage is a flume of water that spurts out of a mouth halfway up the large rock wall of the dam.  I assume that this is part of the hydroelectric system.  It seems a mockery of the amazing Thunder River in the Grand Canyon, cold pristine water spurting out of the rock wall of the canyon after meandering underground for millions of years to dramatically appear on its course to the Colorado River.

Anadromous fish avoided Cougar dam because the water temperature was inhospitable.  The water released from the bottom of the reservoir was too cold and fish avoided it.  The summer sun-warmed water released from the top in the fall was too hot, triggering premature hatching of any salmon eggs that may be hidden in the gravel.  And so, an improvement to the 1963 Cougar dam project was authorized: the $52 + million Cougar Reservoir Water Temperature and Upstream Passage Project.  The 302 foot wall allows engineers to choose the depth of water to grab for discharge to control water temperature to make it more fish-friendly.

In the spring of 2009, a $9.7 million project was announced to build a fish ladder that leads to a capture area.  Fish caught in the trap will be sorted, then trucked around the dam to be deposited upstream.  As I arrived to take photos, the workers building the fish passage system were leaving for the day.  Once again I felt I were somewhere I wasn’t supposed to be, trespassing and lurking around with my big orange case.

The US Army Corps of Engineers rushed to dam as many rivers as they could.  The dams provided more people-friendly habitat at a lethal cost to native animal species.  Human populations rose in areas where nature had historically kept the population levels low because of either flooding or lack of water.  Now that we have engineered our rivers so much, we are everywhere.  It appears to be an impossibility to remove the majority of dams we’ve erected unless we remove ourselves from the floodplains of our rivers.  I don’t see this happening anytime soon.

Since we can’t get rid of the problems that we have created, the solution is to engineer them more.  We didn’t do this well in the first place.  What makes us think that we can continue to do it now without adverse affects?  Sure, we know more now about ecosystems than we did before, but how much do we not know?  All of the reports I have read create the sense that this is the solution for the dwindling anadromous fish populations.  The fish will return!  All will be good again!  But this doesn’t hold true in many areas where fish passage has been engineered.  There is too much that we don’t know about these systems and the way everything is connected to create artificial solutions that are sustainable.

With that said, I don’t have anything to offer for a better solution.  We’ve created mind-boggling, complicated problems.  It’s a problem that I don’t believe can be solved by multi-million dollar band-aid projects to transport fish.  For the time being, all I can do is visit the dams regularly as well as the water above and below to get to know these interrupted areas as well as I can.