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Editorial: Letter Raises Good Questions About Detroit Project

Albany Democrat-Herald

In the wake of last week's algae bloom at Detroit Reservoir — and the subsequent advisory from city of Salem officials about cyanotoxins in the city's drinking water — members of Oregon's congressional delegation are raising fresh questions about a proposed Army Corps of Engineers project at Detroit Dam.

They're good questions. We should be sure that we have adequate answers before we move forward with the project.

The Corps has been moving ahead (slowly, to be sure, but ahead nonetheless) with plans to build a water temperature mixing tower at Detroit Reservoir. Corps of Engineers representatives have said the proposed tower will help them meet biological standards for endangered fish set by the National Marines Fisheries Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

 

But the letter from Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley, along with Rep. Kurt Schrader, strongly suggests that the project is moving ahead with too much speed and that it would be a good idea to put the brakes on until we can get more substantive answers. (The online version of this editorial includes a copy of the June 1 letter.)

The fact that Salem pulls all of its drinking water supply from the reservoir lends added urgency to the matter. (It might also be worth asking why a city with 155,000 or so residents doesn't have an adequate backup water supply  — or why it has not installed a treatment system that can screen out the cyanotoxins, but those are questions beyond the scope of this editorial. We'll just note for the record that another algae bloom in Detroit Reservoir is a very likely occurrence as the summer heats up; in fact, the city of Salem renewed its water advisory for cyanotoxins on Wednesday. At this point, however, let us remind you that Albany water has been tested, continues to be tested, and is safe. Repeat: Albany water is safe. Let's return now to the main editorial.)

Wyden, Merkley and Schrader noted in the letter that they support the environmental goals involved in the project. But they also note that all three construction alternatives for the cooling tower would require drawdowns in the reservoir's level — and that's where the questions begin.

The Corps of Engineers, the letter said, "has stated publicly that they underestimated the impacts not only in severity to communities but also in who would be impacted."

In a bit of congressional understatement, the letter goes on to note that "This is troubling."

Well, yes, it is. 

The letter also is useful in that it reminded the Corps of the vast number of parties that stand to be affected by whatever decision eventually is made: "We also ask for recognition that all stakeholders including tribal interests, cities and businesses along the North Santiam River, anglers, irrigation users, conservationists  and recreation users need timely information" from the Corps about the project.

That recognition would be useful — but so would specific answers to many of the questions the congressmen raised. In particular, we would call the Corps' attention to a handful of the questions posed in the letter:

• Why were each of the alternatives to a temperature tower ruled out?

 

• How has the Corps analyzed economic impacts to the 850 or so farms that might be affected if stored water is unavailable to the Santiam Water Control District during key growing months?

• What specific outreach has the Corps done as it attempts to assess economic impacts throughout the Santiam Canyon?

• What analysis of economic impacts has been done with respect to the immediate surrounding communities of Detroit, Mill City, Gates and Idanha?

All in all, the lawmakers raised nearly 20 questions — and, remember, these guys support the reasons for the project. 

As the letter notes, "This project is complex on every level and having a thorough understanding of all impacts is necessary." If that means we have to slow down to understand those impacts, that's an acceptable tradeoff. (mm)

Read at the Albany Democrat-Herald.