NEWPORT, Ore. — People in blazers and strapped-on booties waded through the dark intake tunnel of a dam, flashlights in hand, stirring rust-colored silt into the water. Spiders and large black crickets scurried across the wet walls. And water trickled from seepage holes — vulnerable breakage points inside the tunnel.
“This is the stuff nightmares are made of,” said Jenny Dresler, grassroots director of the Public Affairs Council.
The City of Newport's engineer was leading about a dozen politicians, community leaders and water experts underground into the intake of Oregon’s second most dangerous dam — Big Creek Dam No. 2 — on Tuesday in Newport, Ore.
Gov. Kate Brown approved $4 million for Newport’s dam project Aug. 9, but the money won’t be available until 2021 and the danger is far from over.
Across Oregon, water infrastructure is crumbling, funding is scarce and the disconnect between bureaucrats and communities has exacerbated tensions over water. But small Oregon communities like Newport are showing that citizen activism can make a difference.
The two Newport reservoirs, behind Big Creek Dam No. 1 (Lower) and Big Creek Dam No. 2 (Upper), are the city’s sole water supply, and the secondary water source for surrounding areas.
According to Tim Gross, the City of Newport’s public works director and city engineer, when these dams collapse, they’ll kill everyone and destroy everything in their path. Imagine rushing water at a rate of 285 average-sized swimming pools per second — and that’s just from the upper dam.
The Oregon Coast lies near the Cascadia Subduction Zone, but Gross said it wouldn’t require the Big One for these dams to collapse. To fail, the dams need an earthquake of only 3.0 or greater on the Richter Scale.
Constructed in 1951 and 1968, respectively, the lower and upper dams are crumbling, and the soil underneath is at risk of liquefying.
Although Gross has been pushing for a decade for removal of the old dams and construction of a new one, the soils under the dams reached dangerous levels this year.
Oregon has 75 high-hazard dams, which means if the dams fail, they will result in significant damage and loss of life. Of that number, nine are in poor condition and seven in unsatisfactory condition, according to Stephanie Prybyl, water policy analyst at Oregon Water Resources Department.
Funding is scarce. Getting a federal dam grant is highly competitive, and the pool of money is meager. According to Tia Cavender, Newport’s grants consultant of record, the dam project in Newport alone will cost up to $80 million. But for the current fiscal year, FEMA’s National Dam Rehabilitation Program has a grant pool of only $10 million — for the entire U.S.
Cavender said dam owners must apply for small grants — local, state and federal — to raise the money that’s needed, and even then, it won’t be enough.
To build the dams in Newport, said Gross, the city will ultimately have to tax its residents to make up for whatever portion isn’t funded.
“This small community can’t afford much,” said Gross. “If the tax is too high, they’ll leave.”
The timeline, said Cavender, also poses a challenge. Grant money often comes with strings attached and specific timeline requirements, and the grants can conflict with one another.
Funding is even more limited for private dam owners, such as farmers who own small reservoirs, according to April Snell, executive director of the Water Resources Congress.
But communities are rallying together to make change happen.
After the 2019 legislative session, Brown said Aug. 4 she might veto the $4 million appropriation in House Bill 5050 to pay for the Big Creek Dams project.
Newport rallied to fight for its water supply.
“Coastal Oregonians are tough people,” said Sen. Arnie Roblan, D-Coos Bay. “They usually get ignored in the legislature, and it’s their resilience that’s made the difference. It’s the rural folks, the fishermen’s wives and the local groups that have banded together to fight for this dam project.”
Community members flooded Brown’s office with calls, emails and letters. Roblan, Rep. David Gonberg, D-Central Coast, and others met with the governor, attempting to change her mind.
On Aug. 9, Brown did an about-face and decided not to veto the funding.
Mike Harryman, resiliency officer for Brown’s office, was on the tour at Big Creek Dam No. 2 Tuesday.
“It’s a good thing the governor didn’t veto the funding,” said Harryman, “or else you’d all be stringing me upside-down by my boots inside the dam.”
Racquel Rancier, water policy analyst at the Oregon Water Resources Department, said the funding is a victory for Newport, but Oregon’s water infrastructure still has a long way to go.
“We’ve got to celebrate the little victories,” she said.
As the group slogged out of the wet dam intake tunnel, they joked about which of them should get left behind to cover up the constantly-flowing seepage holes, like the fable of the little Dutch boy who put his finger in a dike to save Holland.
“It’s too bad it’s not that simple,” said Roblan. He glanced sideways at the dam, an uneasy expression on his face. “Let’s get out of here.”