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FISH PROJECTS SWIM AFTER SCARCE FUNDS.

Byline: Scott Maben The Register-Guard

Federal officials may scrap plans for a fish improvement project at Blue River Dam in the McKenzie River basin, in part because they're spending more than expected on a similar project at nearby Cougar Dam.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers estimates that its temperature-control tower under construction at Cougar Dam will cost almost $55 million, or about $14 million more than projected when Congress approved funding for the project in 1999.

The increase is because of inflation and cost overruns, said George Miller, project manager for the corps.

That leaves the agency with less than $10 million available for a temperature-control tower at Blue River - a project estimated four years ago to cost more than $23 million.

The shortfall will prompt the corps and federal fisheries managers to re-evaluate the need for the Blue River project, Miller said.

"I would think it would be safe to say it's questionable now at best," he said.

The towers are designed to draw water from varying depths in the reservoirs in order to improve downstream water conditions for spring chinook salmon and bull trout, which are listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.

Officials instead will look at other dams that could be upgraded to benefit threatened and endangered fish in the Willamette River basin. Those include Dexter, Lookout Point and Hills Creek dams on the Middle Fork Willamette River.

"We think there may be other reservoir projects that could afford more benefit for less dollars than Blue River," Miller said.

Officials also say the improvements to Cougar Dam will do far more to help fish than at Blue River Dam.

"There's high-quality spawning habitat in the South Fork below Cougar Dam for chinook and there are also bull trout present," said Chris Allen, a fisheries biologist with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service in Portland.

"Whereas in Blue River below the project," Allen said, "there's not as much habitat, it's lower quality and was not thought to be as productive habitat for bull trout and chinook as the South Fork."

The South Fork spans nearly three river miles below Cougar Dam, and Blue River runs less than a mile below the dam before each merges with the McKenzie.

The corps hopes to complete the Cougar project by December 2004, after which it will monitor results for at least a year.

"It would be good to see Cougar operate for a while and make sure that we're getting what we thought we were getting and that we're doing it correctly," said Lynn Krasnow with NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) Fisheries, formerly the National Marine Fisheries Service.

Jim Thrailkill, coordinator of the McKenzie Watershed Council, said he supports monitoring the benefits of the Cougar project for at least four years to better understand how new water temperatures affect plants and water quality below the dam and in the main stem of the McKenzie.

"I think the money would be better spent on that before they launch into a similar project at Blue River," Thrailkill said.

The Fish & Wildlife Service plans to underscore important fish restoration opportunities, including more temperature-control projects, in an opinion it's writing on the corps' entire Willamette basin operations, Allen said.

"The Middle Fork Willamette is a high-priority sub-basin because of the large dams in that basin and the fisheries resources we have there," he said.

But others are lobbying for more to be done at Cougar Dam to improve fish runs. Jeff Ziller, fisheries biologist with the state Department of Fish and Wildlife in Springfield, said he'd like to see more federal investment in helping spring chinook and bull trout reach river habitat above Cougar Lake and improving their odds of migrating downstream through the dam.

The corps, for instance, could revive construction of a fish trap below Cougar Dam to allow biologists to capture fish and truck them to native habitat above the dam, Ziller said. The corps has halted work on the fish trap, largely because of its cost.

As for downstream migration, the revamped water intake system at Cougar should make it easier for juvenile fish to pass through the dam, Ziller said, because it will draw water from the top 50 feet of the reservoir, where the young fish are found.

Safe passage could be improved further if the corps were to install "fish-friendly" turbines, Thrailkill said.

Reconnecting fish with isolated populations above dams is a high priority of recovery plans being developed for bull trout, chinook and winter steelhead in the Willamette basin.

Ziller said he believes the biggest benefit of additional temperature-control projects would be at Lookout Point Lake near Lowell or Detroit Lake on the Santiam river.

"There is a tremendous amount of protection potential upstream from Lookout Point," he said. "That's where we're putting adult salmon right now, and we're seeing some of that production take place."

Temperature control at Detroit would benefit both spring chinook and steelhead, Ziller said.

CAPTION(S):

Workers have built about a third of an adjoining tower that will upgrade the water intake system at Cougar Dam. It is designed to improve downstream water conditions for fish.
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Title Annotation:Rising costs at Cougar Dam may may contribute to eliminating a similar effort at Blue River; Environment
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Aug 8, 2003
Words:859
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