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Corps Plans to Stop John Day Drawdown

by Mike Lee
Tri-City Herald, January 27, 2000

The Army Corps of Engineers said Wednesday that lowering the John Day reservoir wouldn't help fish much and the agency doesn't find enough potential benefit to continue years of study on the controversial measure.

It's planning to tell Congress later this year that the biological and economic risks associated with lowering the 77-mile pool are too significant to push the study into a second phase.

"This is a victory for common sense," said Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash. "I am pleased that the people of Eastern Washington will no longer have the possibility of a John Day drawdown hanging over their heads."

Sen. Slade Gorton, R-Wash., agreed. "The Corps announcement today tells us that we've just spent millions of taxpayer dollars on a study that verifies what we've thought all along - that throwing money at dam removal studies does very little to save salmon."

Wednesday's report does not directly influence continuing investigations about breaching the four lower Snake River dams to boost salmon stocks. Nonetheless, Kennewick irrigation consultant Darryll Olsen said, "I think this fantasy of taking out dams is going to dissipate very quickly here in the near future because of high costs and no biological benefits."

The estimated cost of drawdown at the Columbia River hydropower dam is $587 million annually, according to a Corps report given to the Northwest congressional delegation.

"The Corps has come to the right conclusion that a John Day drawdown would be an unwise use of taxpayer dollars and have minimal effect on salmon recovery," said Gorton. "We need to move forward and refocus our efforts on more cost effective salmon recovery efforts and protect the interests of our farmers and agriculture communities."

Roughly 150,000 acres of crops are watered from the John Day pool on both sides of the Columbia River. And the combined value of production from the pool in Washington and Oregon was about $230 million in 1994, according to a Corps draft study.

Irrigation leaders have predicted a return to Depression-era economic woes in surrounding counties if the river is lowered. The value of the farmland and infrastructure on both sides of the river is nearly $1 billion, according to one estimate.

If the Corps recommendation holds, irrigators can breathe a bit easier - though Hermiston irrigation consultant Fred Ziari said they will remain vigilant about attempts to alter the federal hydrosystem. "We hope this is the last we hear of the John Day drawdown, but we have been surprised before," said Ziari, chairman of the Eastern Oregon Irrigation Association.

Lowering the John Day pool has been studied for years as a possible way to improve conditions for federally protected salmon and steelhead. The Corps is wrapping up the latest report, a $3.7 million study directed by Congress in 1998. The agency's goal was to determine whether initial review of fish benefits warranted a second phase of study.

Stuart Stanger, Corps project manager, said the agency's biological studies show a drawdown "would contribute little" to the survival and recovery of federally protected Snake River fish. "We believe that no further study is necessary to allow Congress and the region to make a decision regarding drawdown of the John Day reservoir or removal of the John Day dam," he said.

Stanger said lowering the pool would reduce the fish migration time from McNary to John Day dams by one or two days and could increase the numbers of upper Columbia River spring chinook. But lowering the pool would post "significant risk" to habitat used by healthy upriver bright chinook, he said.

Bruce Lovelin, executive director of the Columbia River Alliance, a group of river users based in Portland, said the Corps did a "pretty thorough job" looking at the complex issues at John Day, the third largest hydroelectric dam in the Columbia Basin.

Replacing the dam's power production would result in six additional natural gas-fired power plants emitting 418,420 tons of carbon dioxide annually and cost 10 times more than John Day power, Lovelin said.

Also, flood control and navigation at John Day would end if the river was lowered.

The Corps is planning two public meetings on the report, which is supposed to be released in the next few days. The agency issued a press release Wednesday that summarized its findings.

The first meeting is at 7 p.m. Feb. 16 at the Desert River Inn, 705 Willamette Ave., Umatilla. The second meeting is at the Goldendale Primary School cafeteria, 840 S. Shuster, in Goldendale, at 7 p.m. Feb. 24.

Stanger said the Corps could change its position after considering public comments. After the report is done, Congress will be faced with a choice to continue its controversial study.

Mike Lee
Corps Plans to Stop John Day Drawdown
Tri-City Herald, January 27, 2000

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