It appears the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers may have seen the light. In its preliminary environmental impact statement, the agency has recommended against draining Detroit Lake. The reservoir provides irrigation water for 800 farmers and 6% of Willamette Valley farmland in addition to providing drinking water for 175,000 Oregonians.

To many who live and work near the North Santiam River, this recommendation comes as a relief. After all, using hundreds of millions of federal tax dollars to intentionally damage the lives and livelihoods of so many people made no sense.

The proposal to drain the lake for up to two years was part of a larger plan to modify the temperature of the river water to better accommodate natural runs of salmon and steelhead fish that have been listed as endangered under the federal Endangered Species Act.

The plan is to build a concrete water-cooling tower behind the Detroit Dam at a cost estimated at $100 million to $200 million.

When we think of all the things that $200 million could do these days, we have to wonder about the federal government’s priorities — if it has any.

First off, $200 million could provide $167,000 to each of Oregon’s 1,200 public schools. Or it would pay for building the new cancer institute at the Oregon Health & Science University — and still have $10 million left over.

Or here’s a thought: the money could be saved. The federal budget is already more than $700 billion in the red this year.

Suffice it say, the concept of spending hundreds of millions of dollars on fish is mind-boggling, particularly when you consider that thousands of hatchery fish already thrive in the river, which Detroit Lake feeds. The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife last year counted 5,270 chinook salmon in that river. Nearly 1,000 of them were native run and the rest were from a hatchery. Similarly, there were 775 steelhead — 185 of them native run. And don’t forget about the 312 coho salmon.

That makes us highly skeptical of plans to build a water tower, but alas, under the Endangered Species Act, hatchery fish are invisible. The Corps is only trying to accommodate an ineffective and poorly written law that has cost the federal government — taxpayers — billions of dollars already in the Northwest for the sake of fish.

The Corps now says it can engineer a way to build the 300-foot-tall tower without draining Detroit Lake. That sounds better, but we have to wonder about the need for a tower at all.

The last thing we want, or need, is a $200 million monument to fish. We certainly can’t afford it.

Recommended for you