Sunday, June 12, 2011

Willamette Basin Project

All through the 19th and early 20th century the Willamette River flooded, causing damage to agriculture and settled areas that increased as Oregon’s population grew.  By the mid-1930s, as so often happened during that era of belief that government, people, could actually do great things when they worked together for a common good, state leaders were able to encourage the Federal government to consider solutions to the problem.  The Federal government, as it so often did, turned to the US Army Corps of Engineers and the result, authorized by the Flood Control Act of 1936, became known as the Willamette Basin Project.

The Willamette Basin Project was a series of multi-purpose dams, at one time as many as 19, that would control the river and its tributaries as far south as Cottage Grove, to provide for flood control, irrigation and recreational opportunities.  The Corps got started building several of the dams in the late 1930s and then, after the distraction of WWII, got back to work after the massive Vanport Flood of 1948 provided extra emphasis on how dangerous Oregon’s rivers could be.  The last of the 15 dams ultimately built in the Willamette Project, the Blue River Dam, was completed in 1969.

I’ve worked on several of these dams in the past, giving me an appreciation for the scope of Corps (and Oregon) vision during this New Deal-Great Society period of infrastructure construction (even Ike’s Administration, generally opposed to Federal funding, saw merit in the Willamette Basin Project).  At the moment I am working on the Fall Creek Dam and Reservoir, located near Lowell, Oregon.  Fall Creek is an earthen embankment dam, almost a mile long at its crest (5,100 feet) that rises 180’ and impounds Fall Creek, creating a reservoir just under 7 miles long.  Fall Creek was completed, at a cost of $22 million in 1969.

Now, as is happening on several of the Willamette Basin dams, a third party has filed an application to built a small hydropower project on the downstream face of the Fall Creek Dam, generating a small amount of electricity, about 10 megawatts, with the dam’s outflow.  These so-called micro-power projects can add significantly to Oregon’s generation capacity without much environmental impact (the dams are already there) but they trigger Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act, sending me out into the field with a camera and into the archive on yet another dam. 

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