A U.S. Army Corps of Engineers proposal to build a $100 million to $200 million, 300-foot-tall tower at Detroit Dam east of Salem leaves us, well, amazed.
The tower would be used to adjust the temperature of the water leaving the dam and heading downstream in the North Santiam River. The purpose of the project is to increase the returns of the native chinook salmon and steelhead runs, which are protected under the federal Endangered Species Act.
The problem — and there are many — is Detroit Lake will have to be drained for up to two years while the tower, called a selective withdrawal structure, is built. That not only means the lake would be useless as a recreation area but it means the water supply downstream would be limited.
Of particular concern to us are the 800 farmers downstream in the Santiam Water Control District. They farm 17,000 acres — 6 percent of the farmland in Marion County, Oregon’s most productive agricultural county.
If the river flow below Detroit Dam is reduced or becomes unreliable, those farmers’ livelihoods would be put at risk. They would have to find alternative water sources, switch to dryland or low-water crops, or who-knows-what.
Another problem is the reduction in the major source of drinking water for 175,000 Oregonians who live in Salem, the state capital, and Stayton, a small town upriver.
Still another problem is the cost. The federal government spending upwards of $200 million on such a project is stunning. During an era of massive federal overspending, such a project indicates to us that the government’s priorities are scrambled beyond all recognition.
In Fiscal Year 2017, Congress spent $4 trillion. That’s $666 billion more than it collected in taxes. Unbridled federal spending sprees are nothing new. Since 2007, Congress has added nearly $8.6 trillion to the federal deficit. That’s an average of $778 billion a year more than the government collected. The overall federal debt is now $21 trillion, more than the entire 2017 U.S. gross domestic product of $19.5 trillion.
The Corps of Engineers doesn’t control the federal budget. The water tower at Detroit Lake was ordered in a 2008 biological opinion when scientists found the salmon and steelhead returns were lower than expected. The Corps is just doing its job.
But it should also be mentioned that there is no shortage of fish in the North Santiam River. According to the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, which counts fish at the Upper and Lower Bennett Dams near Stayton, last year there were 5,270 chinook salmon — 987 of them are native run and the rest were from a hatchery. Similarly, there were 775 steelhead — 185 of them native run. And don’t forget about 312 coho salmon.
The problem isn’t the people in charge of the Corps. It’s Congress. It can’t set priorities, and it can’t balance the federal budget. It did write the Endangered Species Act, which we have said many times before wastes hundreds of millions of dollars focusing on individual populations of fish, not species.
Considering these many problems, if the Corps is looking for enthusiasm for this project, it’s going to have to go somewhere else.