Corps prepares for dry year in Rogue River Basin

Lost Creek Lake

Lost Creek Lake

Chuck Grady, Rogue River Basin Project operations project manager

Chuck Grady, Rogue River Basin Project operations project manager

Lost Creek Lake, Ore. - Full disclosure up front: I’m new here. New to Oregon, really.

I picked up my life and moved from Baltimore just last winter. This is my second spring in the Rogue. Already, though—at least as far as my position with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is concerned—I’ve seen things play out quite differently from one year to the next.

Last April, at Jess Dam/Lost Creek Reservoir, we released water at rates unseen since the floods of 1996-1997. The “atmospheric river” event that brought massive amounts of late-season rain to our area had us releasing water through the dam at three separate outlets to avoid overfilling the reservoir and flooding communities downstream. In just four days’ time, Lost Creek Lake rose eight feet.

To put it simply, water was in no short supply. This year—at least so far—it is.

As someone who, even after a short time, has come to feel proudly at home in this corner of the world, I consider it my duty to keep our communities—you—updated on our projects. And while that might be harder in less-than-ideal years, it’s during these times that it’s especially critical.

So let’s dig in.

How did we get here?

It’s perfectly reasonable for the average person seeing a low-water situation to ask, “Why didn’t the Corps see that coming?” It’s a great question, really.

While our dam/reservoir system here in the Rogue River Basin isn’t as vast as the Corps’ Willamette Valley Project—13 dams from Detroit Lake to Cottage Grove, and from Fern Ridge to Hills Creek—it is nevertheless, and similarly, a complex operation.

The Corps started work on the Rogue River Basin Project in 1962 with a primary purpose in mind. As the story went in the Willamette Valley, there was a need to protect communities from flooding. But while flood risk management captured the forefront, the system would also support irrigation, power generation, fish and wildlife enhancement, water supply, water quality control, and recreation.

With multiple competing demands, tradeoffs are often necessary as we manage the system. Suffice it to say that we work to strike a very delicate balance. I’ll tell you a tiny story to illustrate what I mean.

Earlier this spring, the Corps met with partner agencies to plan out how we’ll work together throughout the year to manage water for different uses. Within just three days, we had to change course. Unexpectedly warm temperatures on the other side of the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest, in a stretch of canyon-like areas near Agness, Oregon, had put fish downstream at risk of developing a nasty—and fatal—bacteria in their gills. The solution to save them? Schedule releases of water from Lost Creek Lake to augment river temperatures and flows downstream. And so we adjusted.

I know. Fish gill bacteria is not something most people are used to thinking about. These days, it seems, I’m constantly telling friends and family back home how much I think about intricate details of a river system that I never imagined would cross my mind. But fisheries enhancement is a primary authorized purpose for the Rogue project. In fact, our dams here in the Rogue were some of the first in the country built with this purpose in mind.

Of course, when we release water to enhance the survival of fish populations, we lose some water that would go to other purposes—recreation, for example. But it’s worth also noting that, especially in an area that boasts world-class fishing, protecting fish supports recreation in its own right.

The takeaway? Nothing we do happens in a vacuum. The water we’re given is the water we have. So while there’s a lot expected of us—and undoubtedly a lot that we accomplish—with the management of the Rogue project, the fate of a given water year hinges, first, on one variable: rain.

Rain determines what water we have and, therefore, what we’re ultimately able to do.

And here, the story is much the same as it’s been across the rest of Oregon in recent months. Each month since October, we've had lower-than-average precipitation. A significant rain event in January is the sole exception. Like we saw in 2001 and 2015, it’s simply a dry year.

The model we use to predict precipitation—and thus to plan out the storage of water in our reservoirs—allows us to see out about 10 days. All told, that’s not much time. And the farther out we go, the less reliable predictions are. Really, we manage the system day-to-day.

We’ve withheld as much water at Applegate Reservoir as possible. The rain we got in January? It came right before our refill season, which begins Feb. 1 and runs through May, so we released much of that to avoid flooding communities downstream.  

Public safety—the safety of our communities—is always our top priority in all that we do.

What impacts do we expect?

The good news, at least when it comes to Lost Creek Lake, is that we’ve had enough water coming in (referred to as inflows) to suggest that we may reach normal levels there before summer hits. At this point, everything depends largely on how the rest of May plays out. Warmer temperatures will demand more water releases to improve downstream conditions for fish. And we’ll also start factoring in demands from agriculture and other water users.

While the year isn’t looking too bad for Lost Creek Lake, the same can’t be said for Applegate Lake, about 60 miles south. There, we’ve been releasing as little water as possible since December, and still, in April, we saw the second-lowest water levels in the project’s 40-year history.

It goes without saying that Applegate is where we’ll see the biggest potential impacts of this dry year: less water for farmers, and higher temperatures and lower flows downstream that could put some stress on fish populations. And while most impacts will happen downstream, boat ramps could possibly close as early as mid-August.

While May is still a major factor, conditions at Lost Creek Lake are looking more hopeful. We could still see some minor impacts to recreation. We may also face some challenges meeting our downstream targets to support fish survival. (But we’ve already been making adjustments to our water releases to help with that.)

As the proud providers of world-class recreation since 1944, it saddens us here at the Corps to imagine offering anything less than the ideal recreation experience for community members and families. We understand that recreation is important not only for our wellbeing and enjoyment but also for our local economy.

Especially as members of this community ourselves, despite that we focus first on public safety, we still carry a very deep concern for any impacts businesses might face as a result of hits to recreation.

Trust me when I say we’ll be doing the best we can to prioritize our operations appropriately and to deliver the best recreation year we can with the water we have.

What are we planning to do about all of this?

For the same reasons that managing a dam/reservoir system—and making the predictions necessary for that—can be difficult, it’s hard to lay out a concrete plan for exactly what we’ll do and how, especially considering how quickly conditions can change. But here’s what I can tell you for certain:

This year has the potential to be a tough one for us. Not just for those of us at the Corps, but for all of us as a community. These are the same struggles Oregonians in other parts of the state are posturing for.

That said, for us at the Corps in particular, and our partner agencies, this is also going to be a very busy year. We’re going to talk a lot. We’re going to meet often. We’ll constantly pull new data to help guide the management of our projects toward the best outcome for all of us. We’ll keep a meticulously close eye on how conditions develop.

Rest assured that we’re looking at the rivers every day—every hour. This is what we do, and we take it seriously. We're going to do the best with the resources we have this year, however the coming days and weeks play out.

One thing that gives us hope, especially here in the Rogue, is the quality of our relationships with partner agencies. From the beginning, the Corps, partner agencies and stakeholders all agreed on exactly how water resources in the Rogue should be reserved for different purposes—right down to the acre-foot (how we measure stored water).

These early agreements paved the way over time for shared goals and a shared vision for how we manage this system. They’ve made working together easier, more collaborative and more productive.

The Corps and partner agencies, like the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, will work closely and meet weekly. We may have different goals and demands to manage for, but we're always in constant coordination. And we all have the best interests of the project, species and communities at heart.

Trust in this: We’re going to demonstrate the value of teamwork.

We’ll all get through this together

It’s going to be a very busy year, and we’re ready for it. We’re going to do what the Corps of Engineers is known for: making the most of available resources. The Corps has long been trusted to face the nation’s toughest challenges, and we have always persevered.

And people and communities remain at the heart of what we do.

Even after just 16 months, I’ve come to truly love and cherish this area. In fact, my wife is already digging our graves in the backyard.

(That last part is a joke—sort of.)

But in all seriousness, this is where I see myself growing old. I consider myself a part of this community—a part of your community. Our community.

If you don’t know me by now, then I hope someday soon we have a chance to shake hands and chat. For now, accept a promise: We’ll do our best to deliver the best outcome we can.