Rivers, Beautiful and Dammed

Written and illustrated for UO Science Story

The Oregon summer of 2014 was so hot and dry that fireworks were banned in the city of Eugene for the Fourth of July. So instead of igniting sparklers, I spent the day rafting down the McKenzie River with my family and neighbors. The rushing water under our raft was the same flow that supplied drinking water and hydroelectric power to my hometown of Eugene, Ore. 

I grew up vaguely knowing this information – glancing out car windows at the dammed river on rides to eastern Oregon to ski or play in weekend soccer tournaments– but until now I have not thought about the deep implications of harnessing a river’s power.

Rivers like the McKenzie have always been integral to the Pacific Northwest, and dams that have been built across many of its rivers are inseparable from its modern history.   

Outside a Hood River, Ore. train station in 1932, while campaigning for president, Franklin Roosevelt called for building dams on the Columbia River, the region’s largest river. He was promoting the ‘incalculable value’ of its ‘vast water power.’ 

Roosevelt won, and six years later Bonneville Dam was built. The first of 14 dams that harness and control the Columbia, Bonneville is one of more than 60 dams in the Columbia River Basin, including the McKenzie River, which is connected to the Columbia by the Willamette River. 

The McKenzie has six dams, including the Carmen-Smith and Leaburg/Walterville complexes, which combine dams, reservoirs, tunnels, and canals to control water and generate electricity for the Eugene area. Most of the Pacific Northwest’s electric power comes from dams like these, which capture the power of falling water. The region relies on the sovereignty of restricted rivers. 

Living Under Restricted Rivers

Despite the benefits that dams have brought to the region, there are downsides. Dams disrupt the life cycles of fish. These impenetrable walls of cement block salmon from reaching their spawning habitat. But dams also change a river’s seasonal flows, on which countless local species depend on. Free-flowing Northwest rivers swell with snowmelt runoff in spring, and the dry heat of late summer arrives. But on a dammed river, humans control these seasonal flows to supply reliable irrigation and energy and stunt critical natural ebb and flow.   

As dam operators design flows to meet human needs, wildlife suffers. “For organisms even below that dam, it’s like, ‘Okay what happened here? I’m supposed to have more water at this time when I’m reproducing or migrating or feeding or whatever, and I don’t have it,’” said Guillermo Giannico, Oregon State University professor and fisheries biologist. 

Effects of Climate Change

Large lakes called reservoirs store a river’s flow behind a dam. In winter when rain and snowfall are heavy across the region, dam managers lower reservoir levels to allow room for heavy runoff and to reduce risk of flooding. But as climate warms and more winter precipitation falls as rain instead of snow, reservoirs fill as fast as rain falls. And snows, when they come, fall later in winter and melt earlier in spring than before.

This means reservoir administrators must let even more water flow downstream in winter so reservoirs will not overflow. So, come springtime, the summer water supply —usually stored in high-altitude snowpack, has already melted and run into the Pacific. Making these water supply problems even worse, the West is experiencing its worst drought in 1,200 years, increasing the risk of water scarcity across the region. 

Most of the Pacific Northwest dams and reservoirs, designed and built over the past century, were not engineered with climate change in mind, and reimagining, modifying or replacing dams to adapt to climate’s impact is a costly and complex process.

Bart Nijssen, a civil and environmental engineering professor at the University of Washington, researches how rivers and lakes change from climate change. 

“In the Pacific Northwest, the bigger question is, with the infrastructure that you already have, can you operate that infrastructure differently to mitigate some of the effects that you’re expecting because of climate change?” said Nijssen. And if dam operators cannot find new ways to adapt the operation of decades-old infrastructure, what happens?

The Leaburg Canal on the McKenzie River, built in the 1920s with horses, mules, and manual labor, exemplifies the finite lifetime of dams and their connected structures. The Leaburg Dam itself diverts water to the canal, which carries water five miles downstream to power generators. 

This combination of dam and canal compensates for the McKenzie’s lack of natural decline in elevation, which on most rivers creates sufficient potential energy for power generation. 

While this setup generated power for nearly a century, time takes its toll. In 2018, the Eugene Water and Electric Board (EWEB) decommissioned the canal for power generation because of water seepage and erosion. The canal now only functions as a stormwater drainage system. As a result, EWEB debates the future of the canal and even the fate of the entire Leaburg project.

The Fate of an Aging Canal

EWEB cites four possible avenues forward for the Leaburg Canal, ranging from full restoration to complete removal, each option coming with its own issues and complexities. At an April 19th  board meeting, EWEB discussed updates and timelines for the project.

“The thing is, Leaburg is quite different than most other projects that consist of a dam with a power plant base. In our situation we have facilities spread out over five miles,” said Mark Zinniker, Generation Engineering Supervisor. “We have a lot of residential development and a major highway located between the canal and the river, so it creates some complicating factors.” 

And so, debate about Leaburg’s future is focused not only on the services it provides, like irrigation and power, it is also a debate about the future of the surrounding community. 

Creeks that used to flow into the McKenzie River have instead run into the Leaburg Canal for the past century. This setup has reduced stream flooding in nearby areas, and if the canal was removed, natural streamflow into the river would have to be restored. 

Besides creation of a reservoir, the Leaburg Dam itself serves as a bridge across the McKenzie River and gives access to Lloyd Knox Park, where anglers and recreationists take advantage of the reservoir’s southern shore. The bridge also affords access to Leaburg Fish Hatchery, which is watered by supplies from the canal. All of these community services would be affected if the Leaburg Dam was removed. 

Adam Spencer, EWEB’s communications specialist, thinks that climate change will be one of the biggest factors in the debate about canal and dam restoration or removal.

He explains that unreliable river flows affect both power generation and the health of fish populations. If, for example, the canal diverts water from the McKenzie River, and little or no water remains in the river itself, then fish cannot survive, and hydropower generation stops.

Real Life Leaburg

On a sunny May morning, I drove east from Eugene, nearly 30 miles to Leaburg Dam. I’ve driven this route so many times that, even as directionally challenged as I am, I did not need a GPS. Oregon spring was in full bloom, and there were too many shades of green to count. 

Glancing out my car window, I first saw the Walterville Canal, with a few walkers and joggers on the path that runs alongside it. Further upriver, I passed the Leaburg power plant. Before this year, I had not understood the meaning of the powerlines and buildings I had seen for years while driving by. Nearby, hidden above the slope on my right, was Leaburg Canal and the power plant. This is where the canal drops under the highway and delivers water to the power generators next to the river.

Five miles further upstream, instead of going around the river’s bend towards eastern Oregon I have done on every road trip before now, I turned right and drove Leaburg Dam instead.

On the left, as I drove above the dam was the reservoir. People were casting for fish with their poles, they were launching rowboats, and unpacking picnic lunches. As I looked across the water towards the reservoir’s north bank, I could see the singed treeline burned by the Holiday Farm Fire in 2020. 

At the other end of this gravel road was Leaburg Fish Hatchery. I walked along a canal which carries water to the hatchery. If I did not already know better, I would describe this as a beautiful little creek. I watched families admire schools of penned rainbow trout, and I marveled at the pond of sturgeon. 

At the far end of the hatchery, I sat and watched the canal water pour back into the McKenzie River and I remembered learning to kayak here on the river when I was in middle school. 

Rivers like the McKenzie are our playgrounds, but many have become fragmented by dams, locks, and canals. While they provide us with services and utilities that our communities rely on, it’s easy to forget that these benefits do not come without significant costs.

Where Do We Go From Here?

“Truly, in the construction of this dam we have had our eyes on the future of the Nation,” said President Franklin Roosevelt during a 1937 return trip to Bonneville Dam. “Its cost will be returned to the people of the United States many times over in the improvement of navigation and transportation, the cheapening of electric power, and the distribution of this power to hundreds of small communities within a great radius.”

While the services Roosevelt promised have proved substantial over many decades, the nation faces a new future. Costs of dam upkeep are rising, wild fisheries are declining, and the climate is changing. Energy technology is advancing, and transportation avenues are shifting.

Across the region, some increasingly question the value of dams. A Northwest Energy Coalition study found that removing four hydropower dams on the Lower Snake River and replacing them with a combination of wind, solar, and efficiency would raise household electricity costs in the region by $1 per month. 

Further south on the Klamath River, which borders Oregon and California, the two states’ utilities commissions have found that removing four hydropower dams on that river could save customers more than $100 million in energy costs.

In Eugene, I have already seen the effects of a changing climate in my 21 years of life. I can now (almost) bear our seemingly endless, dark, and damp winters because our infamous Oregon rain has become less frequent. Our summers have become nearly unbearable, where temperatures that used to be in the 70s and 80s have now risen so much that in June of last year temperatures reached 116 degrees in nearby Portland.

Standing on the banks of the McKenzie River on a Saturday in May this year, I witness a transition. Wild rivers were tamed and turned into the foundations of society before I was born, and now in my own lifetime, I am watching that foundation crack and crumble. The fate of Leaburg Dam is just one of many decisions that must be made about the future of our rivers, beautiful and dammed.

This story was a part of the 2022 Science Story publication. To view the story in the publication, click here: https://sciencestory.uoregon.edu/life-in-a-changing-landscape/water/rivers-beautiful-and-dammed