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Court rules against a proposed dam in Marion County

Drift Creek is located east of Salem.
WaterWatch of Oregon
Drift Creek is located east of Salem.

A proposal for a new dam in rural Marion County has drawn criticism from wildlife advocates. On Wednesday, a state court ruled against it.

The East Valley Water District has been trying to build a reservoir at Drift Creek for a decade. They say it would be the only reliable water source for farmers in the Mount Angel area.

"We need to find a source of water. Otherwise, these farms are very much at risk," said Lauren Reese with the district. "A lot of them are served by groundwater sources that are on conditioned or limited permits."

However, critics argued the project would hurt local fish populations, including the Upper Willamette River steelhead, a threatened species. And they said this would defy instream water rights granted in 1996, which were intended to protect the cutthroat trout at Drift Creek.

“The state has a right to keep a certain amount of flow in that creek for the benefit of those fish," said Brian Posewitz, an attorney with WaterWatch of Oregon. "And that takes precedence over any other use of that water.”

In 2019, the Oregon Water Resources Commission denied the district's permit request for water rights, citing this legal issue. The proposed dam would have been 70 feet tall, allowing the storage of 12,000 acre-feet of water annually.

The water district appealed the decision, arguing there wasn't enough evidence of a potential negative impact. Reese told KLCC the final plans for the reservoir would have included protections for local species.

However, the State Court of Appeals ruled that the commission's decision could stand. It found it reasonable to believe the resevoir would conflict with the cutthroat trouts' habitat and water rights.

"This proposal really went against the grain and was really out of step with with the times," said Posewitz. "The state is spending millions of dollars a year to remove dams and other barriers from streams."

Reese said the East Valley Water District will consider whether to appeal to the Oregon Supreme Court or look for a different water source.

"Water issues are some of the most important issues that our state is going to face," said Reese. "Making sure that we can balance the needs of many and [the needs of] species is important."

Nathan Wilk joined the KLCC News Team in 2022. He is a graduate from the University of Oregon School of Journalism and Communication. Born in Portland, Wilk began working in radio at a young age, serving as a DJ and public affairs host across Oregon.