In his 2018 State of the City address, Salem Mayor Chuck Bennett warned of a matter he said was causing him sleepless nights; the proposed 300-foot tower and floating screen at Detroit Lake that would provide fish passage and temperature control at Detroit Dam, an hour east of town on the North Santiam River.

The project, by the Army Corps of Engineers, would cause “potential water shortages” for Salem, Bennett said on March 28, and would “cost millions of dollars to the ratepayers in this community.”

“This isn’t one of those ‘maybes’ or ‘what ifs,’” Bennett said, “if the Corps of Engineers moves ahead, we’ve got a problem.”

The Corps is required by federal law to take action at Detroit Dam because of a 2008 listing by the US Fish and Wildlife Service of winter steelhead as having a moderate risk of extinction and Spring Chinook salmon as having a “very high risk” of extinction. The agency requires passage for these species around the dam.

As part of its process, the Corps was required to evaluate alternative designs and provide a “scoping” process, wherein the public, Native American tribes, municipalities like Salem and others could comment on the different projects.

Mayor Bennett’s March 28 remarks were informed by a detailed analysis conducted by City of Salem staff and printed in a January 19 scoping response to the Corps by Salem City Manager, Steve Powers.

In that letter, Powers said the project would cause “significant impacts” on the City, including “significant hardships for Salem water customers, especially commercial and industrial customers.”

For more than 75 years Salem’s primary water source has been the North Santiam River, obtained from rain that falls on the high ridges of the Cascade Range. The water is treated by a natural, cost-efficient filtering process called slow sand filtration and disinfected at the Geren Island Water Treatment Facility near Stayton.

Mayor Bennett told listeners to his address that these processes give Salem’s 192,000 customers and three wholesale customers – the City of Turner, Suburban East Salem Water District and Orchard Heights Water Association – “some of the purest, best-tasting water in the world.”

Power says the Corp’s two-year Dam project would significantly degrade these benefits. The disruption would create an increase in turbidity (cloudiness caused by particles) in the water and “dramatically” affect the City’s successful and enviable slow sand filtration process. The lower elevations of the water in reservoirs could lead to higher water temperatures associated with more and worse algal blooms, a phenomenon that clogs filters, produces algal toxins and creates taste and odor issues.

Powers also noted City concerns about the possible release of contaminants (such as DDT) in the silt at the bottom of the reservoir that might impact Salem’s ability to meet requirements of the Safe Drinking Act. The lower water levels might even mean the Geren Island facility would not have high enough water flow for proper intake.

“If this occurs,” Powers wrote, “the City will be unable to produce enough drinking water to meet the needs of its community.”

In his speech, Bennett cautioned, “to lose that [North Santiam water], it’s quality, it’s quantity; we don’t have a backup for that, to be quite honest.”

The Corp is currently reviewing comments from Salem and other shareholders, says Tim Ernster, Operations and Maintenance Manager for North Willamette Valley Projects for the Corps.

“This is an example of [US environmental law processes] “working as intended,” he says. “The Corps received public comments early in the project that allow us to assess the impact before any final decisions are made.”

Ernster says 2018 is the year the Corps will develop and evaluate alternatives; in 2019 it will draft an Environmental Impact Statement and Preferred Plan and it is scheduled to issue a Record of Decision in 2020.

“What I can say,” says Kenny Larson of the City Manager’s office, “is that we are… working to find alternative solutions. We are also engaging our federal representatives in Congress on the matter.”   

Salem’s Mayor hopes the outcome will be balanced. “We can deal with a few days or a few weeks without direct access to the North Santiam,” he says, “[but] if we cant get into that river for some sustained period of time – its Fuji water for all of us, I guess.”