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Oregon Governor John Kitzhaber's letter to Congress on Elk Creek Dam (8/27/02)

August 27, 2002

The Honorable C.W. Bill Young
Committee on Appropriations
United States House of Representatives
Washington, D.C. 20515-6015

The Honorable David R. Obey
Ranking Democratic Member
Committee on Appropriations
United States House of Representatives
Washington, D.C. 20515-6015

Re: Elk Creek Lake, Oregon Project in the Energy and Water Development
Appropriations Bill as reported by the Subcommittee

Dear Chairman Young and Ranking Member Obey:

I sincerely wish to thank you and the members of the Appropriations Committee for providing $ 1 million to the Army Corps of Engineers to provide fish passage at the uncompleted Elk Creek Lake Dam in southwestern Oregon. At the same time, however, I am writing to urge you and the members of your committee to drop the limitation that the Energy and Water Development Subcommittee placed on the funding. The restrictive language forbids the Corps from implementing its cheapest and most biologically sound alternative for fish passage and substitutes in its place a far more costly alternative that was found to jeopardize the listed salmon needing passage at the site.

Effective fish passage at Elk Creek Lake Dam is extremely important to the State of Oregon. Court action halted construction of the dam in 1987, with the dam reaching one-third of its planned height, and directed the Corps to provide fish passage above the project. In the intervening fifteen years, the Southern Oregon-Northern California Coastal Coho Salmon have been listed and the Oregon Plan for Salmon and Watersheds has marshaled a vast public and private effort to recover these fish and restore their habitat. The project blocks access to important spawning and rearing habitat and the trap and haul facility's toll on salmon survival undermine the voluntary restoration efforts that landowners and watershed councils are undertaking in the Rogue basin.

The Subcommittee's language reverses the decision the Committee made last year to fund construction of a fish corridor through the dam, which the National Marine Fisheries Service found to be the only alternative that would avoid jeopardy to listed Coho salmon. The Subcommittee provision instead directs the Corps to build a new trap and haul facility to clumsily move threatened salmon around the dam. The Corps found this alternative to be more expensive, while NMFS found it would jeopardize the listed species. If the trap and haul facility can be designed to meet the objections found in the NMFS biological opinion, it will become even more expensive and still fall short of the biological benefits provided by a free flowing river, because the salmon are delayed in their migration and must be physically handled.

Advocates for the Subcommittee language claim that the trap and haul facility is the only way to preserve the government's option to complete the dam in the future. This is not the case. The Corps has testified that removing a portion of the dam (notching) also preserves this option. If the project is ever reactivated, even without notching, concrete must be removed and Corps controlled blasting techniques will minimize damage to the adjacent concrete and will preserve the integrity of the remaining structure and joints.

In fact, notching is the only fiscally sound way to provide fish passage if the Corps must manage the project in an uncompleted state as all alternatives propose. Within ten years the operating costs of a trap and haul facility exceed the cost of replacing the notch if the project ever becomes economically feasible. These costs, or the savings from notching, accelerate over time. Work on Elk Creek Lake Dam stopped in 1987 and the project is likely to remain uncompleted for a long time, because the real obstacle to its completion is negative economics. Over this period the project's benefit to cost ratio has remained below unity, ranging from 0.36 to 1 for the entire project to 0.61 to 1 if past expenditures are written off. This means that for each dollar spent on the overall project, the public receives 36 cents back and loses 64. Touted benefits have disappeared. The General Accounting Office found that the existing Applegate and Lost Creek dams already provide most of the benefits claimed for flood control and water storage for irrigation and municipal use. Indeed, nearly 90 per cent of the water stored behind Lost Creek is not obligated. Completion of the Elk Creek dam would clearly be an inefficient use of taxpayer funds at best.

Senator Mark Hatfield, long a key advocate for construction of the dam, first developed the proposal to provide passive fish passage in 1996 and Congress adopted it in its FY 97 Energy and Water Act. Notching reflects a great deal of wisdom, since it is the only alternative that addresses the requirements of the court, dreams of the community, and the needs of taxpayers, federal agencies, and the State of Oregon, as well as the biology of listed salmon.

I urge you to remove the language in the Energy and Water Development appropriations bill that restricts the use of Elk Creek funds to inefficient trap and haul facilities. Please continue to fund implementation of the most cost-effective solution to fish passage, notching the dam. Each additional delay in constructing the fish passage corridor prevents recovery of the species and nullifies the heroic efforts of local citizens to restore the runs.


John A. Kitzhaber, M.D.
cc: Members of House Committee on Appropriations
Oregon Congressional Delegation


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