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, Salem Statesman Journal

 May 29, 2019

Billions of gallons of water have been hidden behind the Willamette River Basin’s 13 dams since they were constructed starting in the 1930s.

For 30 years, powerful interests including cities, farmers and industry have been slugging it out for access to that water, which has yet to be designated for a use. Fisheries and environmental groups also want a say in how the water is distributed from the dams, operated by the Army Corps of Engineers.

We’re talking about stored water — not what flows freely down the Willamette and its tributaries. Who has a right to it, and when, mostly has never been decided.

That’s about to change.

‘It’s a very complex issue’

It’s more than a drop in a bucket: 1.64 million acre feet of water per year is the equivalent of 534 billion gallons, enough to fill 809,381 Olympic sized swimming pools.

That water could have huge impact on the 2.9 million people living in the Willamette Valley, from Cottage Grove north to Portland, and the $2.2 billion in agricultural goods the region produces each year.

Future demands are in play: expansion for municipal water providers, continued operation and development of farming and the health of the legendary, yet environmentally fragile, salmon and steelhead that spawn in the basin’s tributaries.

“It’s a very complex issue and there’s just a lot of history to it,” said Niki Iverson, project manager for the Oregon Water Utilities Council.

And this conversation about water reallocation comes at the same time as a wider review of how the Corps operates its system of Willamette basin dams.

An act of Congress is needed for any of the water to get divvied up, but for the first time since the conversation started in 1988, the end appears in sight.

How we got to this point and why

Every drop of water in Oregon belongs to the public.

Since 1909, state law has required anyone who uses water from a surface source, such as a river, to apply for a water right from the Oregon Water Resources Department.

Oregon uses a prior appropriation model for water rights, meaning the first to obtain a water right is the last to be shut off in times of low water flows, regardless how that would impact another municipality or farmer.

Major interests in Oregon are fighting for unallocated water stored behind dams.David Davis and Kelly Jordan, Statesman Journal

Congress passed the Flood Control Act of 1938, authorizing the Army Corps of Engineers to build and operate a series of dams in the Willamette River basin, including Detroit Dam along the North Santiam River.

Those dams allow for normal river flow during most of the year, but also hold back millions of gallons of water

The Bureau of Reclamation holds Oregon water rights, on behalf of the federal government, for all of the water stored behind the Willamette Project’s 13 dams.

Those rights currently are designated exclusively for irrigation.

The Bureau can contract out up to 95,000 acre-feet per year for irrigation without triggering a consultation under the Endangered Species Act. Farmers currently hold contracts on 75,000 acre-feet.

“So the Corps owns the bathtubs,” said Brent Stevenson, district manager for the Santiam Water Control District. “The Corps operates them to protect for flood, but if they were only for flood, they would smooth out those peaks, they would be live flow and a normal flow.”

Cities, others requesting water since 1990

The rest of the stored water historically has been used for fish conservation.

But cities, industry and farmers have been eyeing the water since at least 1990, when the Oregon Department of Agriculture submitted an application to the Oregon Water Resources Department requesting that some water be reserved for future irrigation needs.

Municipal water suppliers followed with their own request, in 1994.

Oregon won’t issue either group water rights until the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers decides how much water is available for which purposes.

A process to do that, called the Willamette Basin Review, began in 1996. It was put on hold in 2000 after concerns that dam operations were jeopardizing threatened fish species.

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