STAYTON, Ore. — Rebecca McCoun, like most watershed council leaders, walks a thin line between environmental and agricultural concerns. In 2018, that walk became increasingly important as the North Santiam River’s longstanding drought became a threat to local health, wildlife and commerce.

McCoun is executive director of the North Santiam Watershed Council. The watershed flows from Marion Lake in east Linn County near Three-fingered Jack mountain, to its confluence with the South Santiam at Jefferson.

On its 92-mile journey, it drains 766 square miles, provides drinking water to 10 cities, irrigates more than 17,000 acres of cropland, helps process agricultural products and provides habitat for fish and other species.

The North Santiam River also supplies water to two hydroelectric plants at the Big Cliff and Detroit dams, providing nearly 120 megawatts of power. Depending on use, 100 megawatts can provide power to 36,000 to 100,000 homes.

When blue-green algae and its sickening byproducts popped up again in the dry summer of 2018, the North Santiam’s role as a drinking water source seemed to put water drinkers squarely in a fight with irrigators and industrial water users.

To further aggravate tensions, the Army Corp of Engineers proposed to lower temperatures at the Detroit dam, the result of several legal mandates. One plan called for lowering the level of the lake behind the dam for up to two years to install a water-cooling structure.

That plan was quickly dropped as the result of outcry from irrigators who use the North Santiam, and from Detroit-area business owners who rely on recreation on Detroit Lake, the impoundment behind the dam.

“They were so focused on the temperature, they didn’t realize all those who are dependent on stored water,” said McCoun. She said the Corps is in a tough position as it attempts to follow its legal mandate to lower temperatures in the river.

“Now, we are looking at alternatives,” she said.

The Council takes a neutral stance on particular alternatives, but instead acts as an “information hub,” McCoun said, in its work with the farmers, foresters, agricultural processors, irrigation and drinking water districts in its watershed. The council, a non-regulatory body, depends on voluntary cooperation from landowners and water users to improve water quality.

“We try to provide information so people can make informed decisions. We don’t want people to lose their livelihood, but we also want to improve the water quality.”

Blue-green algae, which thrives in slow, warm waters, has been a problem in the North Santiam every year since she came to work for the council in 2015, McCoun said. She had previously worked as a biologist for the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde.

She was baptized by fire in her new leadership role on the North Santiam. In 2015, the fourth-consecutive drought year on the North Santiam, high temperatures and low waters prompted area officials, led by Marion County, to take on long-term planning aimed at building resiliency to drought emergencies. The group, funded by a Bureau of Reclamation grant, has included NORPAC, a farmer-owned cooperative that operates a processing plant in Stayton; the Oregon Department of Forestry; the Santiam Water Control District; Marion County; the Oregon Department of Agriculture; the Oregon Water Resources Department; and the cities that use the North Santiam for drinking water, power and recreation.

This year, the group’s members, including McCoun, will begin talking to stakeholders about projects that could minimize the impact of drought in the North Santiam basin.

Voluntary wetland and streamside restoration projects, improved irrigation methods, and a host of other projects that improve or conserve water are all part of the watershed council’s bailiwick.

“We can help write grants and seek funding, see through some of the paperwork, help walk people through the process,” McCoun said. The council can also connect water users with a host of experts.

“We don’t work in a vacuum,” McCoun said. “None of the projects we do are done alone.”

The North Santiam Watershed Council is offering free conservation planning workshops in 2019, with help from water, soil and wildlife experts and agencies. The final evening session is Feb. 7 at the Stayton Community Center.

To register, or for more information, call McCoun, 503–930-8202.

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