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Fate and flows: Oregon native keeps water moving through state

Published July 1, 2020
A woman poses in a grassy field with two large dogs. A snowy mountain is in the background.

Salina Hart poses with her dogs Riley (left) and Roxie. Hart, an Oregon native, is the chief of water management for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

PORTLAND, Ore. -- Salina Hart dreams about water.

It makes sense: she grew up on the water, and often went tubing down the local Clackamas River, the North Santiam and the Long Tom. 

Even after the massive local floods of 1996 swelled the river, inundated her home and took out most of her neighborhood, she still loved water.

“After the flood, everything in our yard was downstream,” she said. “The asphalt road washed out.”

Hart recounted the historic flood as she sat on her back porch, while her dogs Roxie and Riley napped nearby. She remembers helping her parents frantically putting the most valuable possessions on top of tables or any surface that would get them away from the rising water before they evacuated. She remembers returning home to soaked drywall. Hart said she and her family didn’t lose much, but she knew people who did.

“I think a lot about that flood, and about people's livelihoods. It's a lot of stress to have to evacuate from your home,” she said. “So, it seems like fate that I ended up where I am.”

Hart is the chief of water management for the Portland District, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. It’s her job to manage water in Corps reservoirs in the Willamette and Rogue river basins, including the release of water from the dams at the reservoirs. 

Day to day, Salina and her team of River Engineers and Hydrologists review official forecasts from the Northwest River Forecast Center every day as they formulate water release schedules for each dam.

Erik Petersen is the Operations Project Manager for dams and reservoirs in the Willamette Valley, he calls the decisions the Corps has to make, “a delicate dance” as experts at the Corps must balance flood risk management, producing hydropower, irrigation, fish survival and wildlife habitat, all while offering world-class recreation opportunities.

Many of these priorities compete with each other – Hart said something that seems simple like keeping a reservoir full for recreation can have direct consequences on recreation, irrigation, and fish downstream.

All of the purposes for dams and reservoirs are spelled out in authorizations from congress and in a water control manual – “it’s basically the bible for how we manage the project,” Hart said. Decisions are also guided by other laws, such as the Endangered Species Act. In 2008, the National Marine Fisheries Service issued a biological opinion, or BiOp, which influences how Hart makes water management decisions. 

“People don't realize that when we're having to meet BiOp flows at Salem, we’re pulling from other projects to meet that flow out of the dam,” she said.
 
Reservoir regulation decisions take into account the weather, the river forecast, snow pack from the winter, soil moisture, precipitation, and terrain then, finally, Hart and her team can “dial in” the hydrology of the system and the basin.

“Each project (dam) has a different constraint,” said Hart. “We operate projects locally, but have to look at it as a whole system.”

Hart has been with Portland District as its water management chief for almost five years and was at the division-level above the district in the dam safety and water management section for 11 years. She said she’s seen how the decisions she helps to make affects people.

“I want people to know we care when we make decisions about water,” she said. Hart pointed to her dreams, saying when there are tough decisions about water, she has nightmares that she’s on the river and can’t get off.

 “I understand issues people have out there -- it's not easy to watch the water at the end of your dock dry up,” she said. 

But Hart knows water management will never be “water control.”

“Water – it’s very powerful,” she said. “The river moves and breathes and we have to be able to adjust and move with it.”