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Four Willamette Valley reservoirs drop to historically low water levels

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Four Willamette Valley reservoirs dropped to historically low water levels this spring in an effort to help endangered salmon and steelhead.

This includes Green Peter, Lookout Point, Cougar, and Fall Creek Reservoirs.

The Fall Creek Reservoir is about 80 feet lower than it usually is at this time of the year and isn't expected to fill up this summer. It will refill to its normal set point this winter.

"These fish are surface-oriented, and so the way they can find their way out is being closer to our outlet, and one way to accomplish that is by keeping our reservoir low" said Greg Taylor, supervisory fish biologist for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in the Willamette Valley.

As of now, the drop in water levels is most noticeable at Fall Creek and Cougar.

"This reservoir is going to stay roughly where it is," said Taylor. "It will go down in the late fall, we'll draw it down all the way to the streambed to pass some fish down in the late fall and winter... and it will come back up, but we will be implementing this delayed refill again, and it won't refill till May."

The lower water levels will not affect drinking water in nearby communities.

This is the second year they have completed this draining operation, and it will continue one more time next year, followed by a reevaluation.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, who are in charge of all four reservoirs, are abiding by a 2021-22 court decision after several environmentalist groups sued them. The groups claimed that the Corps "chronically mismanaged' these reservoirs.

The goal of the litigation was to make it easier for juvenile salmon to make it downstream and grow in number.

Salmon have been enlisted as endangered in this basin since 1999 under the Endangered Species Act. Taylor says the depressed number of salmon is due to harvest issues, hatchery issues, hydropower systems and dams themselves.

Taylor thinks it's possible to improve the status of these fish because it has been done before. The Oregon Chub, found only in the Willamette River, is no longer endangered as of 2014.

"Its been done in this basin so it can be done," Taylor said.

While it may not look the same, plenty of recreational opportunities remain.

"There's still an opportunity to launch a boat, there's still an opportunity to recreate, and again most of the reservoirs, 11 of the 13 we have, are essentially operating normally," said Taylor. "And so people are going to have all of the opportunities that they want at those sites to recreate the way they always have."

At Fall Creek, certain places and some boat ramps won't be available for use this summer.

In July, people will begin to notice the significant drop in water levels at Lookout Point and Green Peter Reservoir as much lower than they have been since the dam's construction. People also won't have access to them for 3-4 months.

The Army Corps of Engineers will revisit its operation to help the endangered fish in 2024.

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For more information on water levels in these reservoirs or to check out if your favorite spot is closed off, you can view the Willamette Valley teacup diagram here.

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