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The public has until Dec. 22 to comment on water will be allocated from Green Peter and Foster dams near Sweet Home, as well as 11 other dams operated in the Willamette Valley by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. 

Mark Ylen, Democrat-Herald

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is nearing the end of the public comment period in a process that could have big implications for how water from 13 dams in the Willamette Valley is stored and allocated.

The bad news thus far is that, considering the importance of the topic, relatively few comments have been received.

The good news is that there's still time to comment: Laurie Nicholas, the project manager for this Willamette Basin Review, said public comments will be accepted until Dec. 22.

If you haven't been tracking this effort, it's easy to see how you might have lost track: The study has been in the works now for more than 20 years, and was launched to take an in-depth look at the shifting needs for water under the Corps of Engineers' control in the mid-valley. The trick is to balance a variety of needs: The area has a growing population that obviously requires water. But farmers need water as well, to irrigate their crops. And fish also need adequate supplies of water.

The study began in 1996, but in 1999 bull trout and Chinook salmon were listed as threatened species, a listing that resulted in the study being put on hold for years. But funding to renew the project came through in 2014, and the Corps of Engineers started the most recent study in August 2015. The goal, Nicholas said, is to have it completed by August 2018. Information gleaned from public comments will help the Corps manage the dams for the next 50 years.

And we're talking about a project that has a big footprint: The 13 dams hold a maximum of 1.59 million acre-feet of water. They serve an area that extends 187 miles from south of Cottage Grove to the north, where the Willamette River flows into the Columbia River. The basin covers about 11,200 square miles — about 12 percent of the state's land mass.

The primary purpose of the dams is flood control, but they have other responsibilities as well: They generate electricity, provide water for municipal, industrial and agricultural uses and also help to provide recreational opportunities, both for reservoirs such as Green Peter and Foster but also for rivers. In addition, adequate water must be allocated into streams for fisheries.

Currently, all water stored in the reservoirs is considered “joint” usage, including agricultural irrigation, fish and wildlife and municipal and industrial.

The Willamette Basin Review would lead to allocation of the water to specific areas. Four allocation alternatives are being considered:

• The preferred plan so far would allocate 962,800 acre-feet to fish and wildlife; 253,950 acre-feet to agricultural irrigation; and 73,300 to municipal and industrial. In addition, 299,950-acre feet would remain in the joint-use category and could be allocated each year based on available water needs.

• Alternative A would allocate 1.2 million acre-feet to fish and wildlife; 250,800 acre-feet to agricultural irrigation; and 122,250 to municipal and industrial use, with none in the joint-use category.

• Alternative B would allocate 1.5 million acre-feet to fish and wildlife; 81,400 acre-feet to agricultural irrigation; and no water to municipal and industrial. Again, no water would be allocated to the joint-use category.

• Alternative C would allocate 1.1 million acre-feet to fish and wildlife; 327,650 acre-feet to agricultural irrigation; and 159,750 acre-feet to municipal and industrial. Again, no water would be allocated for joint use.

You can see the importance of this process. Anyone who relies on this water for recreational, agricultural or any other purpose has a stake in speaking up. 

The sidebar with this editorial has details about how you can comment. But don't delay; before too much longer, the opportunity to participate in this important mid-valley business might be water under the bridge. (mm)

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