The U.S. Army
Corps of Engineers has a major role in the day-to-day business of the Columbia
River, from maintaining the navigation channel to operating most of the major
hydroelectric dams and helping to protect and recover salmon and steelhead.
Army opened its first engineering office in the West at San Francisco in 1866,
and that same year began working to clear the channel of the Willamette River
to Portland in response to a petition to Congress by Portland city officials
and an appropriation that Congress authorized in response. Snags, which are
logs and trees that fall into the river and became embedded in sand or mud, and
constantly shifting sandbars, were hazards to navigation. By 1869, the Corps
had cleared a 17-foot-deep channel. Keeping it open required annual dredging.
This was the first river and harbor work by the Corps of Engineers in Oregon.
1871, the Corps created the Portland District from the San Francisco District,
dividing its west coast work roughly at the California-Oregon border. The first
Officer in Charge of the Portland District was Major Henry M. Robert, later
and, perhaps, better known for his Robert’s Rules of Order.
the end of the 19th century, the Corps conducted surveys of the Columbia
and its tributaries, dredged and maintained the navigation channel from Astoria
to Portland, then Vancouver and later Lewiston, Idaho, removed snags, rocks and
other hazards to navigation, constructed jetties at the mouths of several
coastal rivers including the Columbia, and constructed canals around Columbia
River rapids and waterfalls at Celilo Falls and the Cascades. The
Cascades Canal was completed in 1896 after 18 years of work, and the Celilo
canal was completed in 1913. It took 11 years to build.
1918 the Corps had completed a 30-foot-deep navigation channel between the
ocean and Portland. As with earlier channel improvements, this boosted
commercial river traffic significantly and helped Portland grow.
control and hydropower became Corps responsibilities in the 1920s and 1930s.
The Flood Control Act of 1936 shifted the emphasis from building dikes and
levees to contain rivers to building multiple-purpose dams to improve flood
control and navigation and generate Hydropower. In 1933, the Corps
began work on BONNEVILLE DAM under Title II of the National
Industrial Recovery Act. Congress formally authorized the project in 1935 for
the primary purposes of navigation and hydropower.
there are 31 federal hydropower dams in the Columbia River Basin. The Corps
operates 21 of them, and the other 10 are operated by the federal Bureau of
Reclamation. There are now three Corps districts within the Columbia River
Basin — Portland, Seattle, and Walla Walla — under the supervision of the
Northwestern Division, which is based in Portland.
The Corps installed this removable spillway weir in one of the spillbays at Ice Harbor Dam on the Snake River to
improve passage survival for juvenile salmon and steelhead. The devise is hinged to the back of the dam, and the
fish are carried by water over the “slide,” which can be seen in side profile in this photo at the top of the device.
dams brought the Corps responsibility for providing safe
for salmon and steelhead. Designing Bonneville Dam, the first federal dam
completed on the Columbia, required the Corps to devise means of safely passing
millions of adult fish annually over a 65-foot-high obstruction. This never had
been done on such a large scale. A system of three fish ladders, with backup
fish traps and elevators, was devised and constructed. It went into operation
in 1938 with the completion of the dam, and it worked.
problem of safely passing juvenile fish downstream was more difficult. Juvenile
fish are small, and the passage through the thrashing water and intense
pressure of power turbines can be difficult at best, lethal at worst, for the
tiny fish. At Bonneville, Ivan Donaldson, one of the first fish biologists
employed by the Corps, began research on fish passage in 1941. In 1942 he
recommended various means of protecting juvenile fish that still are being
implemented to this day, including screens in front of turbine entrances to
deflect fish into bypass systems and the removal of predator fish like northern
pikeminnow from the area immediately downstream of the dam. His proposals met
with resistance from at least some of his superiors at the Corps. In a 1942
memo and again in a 1974 interview after his retirement, Donaldson said a Corps
engineer told him that the fish were “a damn nuisance” and that the attitude of
the engineers could be summed up as “to Hell with the fish, I’m here to build a
dam.” Donaldson, despite his frustration with some of his superiors and
co-workers, also recognized that fish passage was forced on the Corps and that,
for the most part, the engineers embraced the responsibility and worked hard to
make the passage facilities effective.
Holmes, a biologist with the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries, also studied fish
passage at Bonneville Dam. He had helped design the fish passage facilities
there and had concluded initially that turbine passage essentially was benign
for juvenile salmon and steelhead. However, in 1947 Donaldson was the first
biologist to conduct research on the number of fish that are killed passing
through turbines, and his research contradicted a 1938 Corps report that
turbine passage presented little danger to fish. Donaldson’s research showed
that mortalities varied widely and that turbines could be both “literal sausage
grinders” and also “a very satisfactory route for the passage of fish” (later
it became clear that violent pressure changes, not the spinning blades, are the
primary cause of fish kills in turbines). In 1952 he estimated juvenile fish
mortality at Bonneville Dam to be about 15 percent. His report, considered
controversial, initially did not appear in print, but it prompted additional
research on fish mortality at Corps dams.
on fish passage was not a new undertaking for the Corps in the early 1950s. The
Fish and Wildlife Coordination Act of 1934, and amendments to the law in 1946
and 1958, ordered the Corps to consult with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
and the state fish and wildlife agencies regarding damages to fish and wildlife
from operation of the dams. The 1958 amendment required the Corps to give
“equal consideration” to fish and wildlife conservation as to water
developments in its planning. By that time the Corps had been operating its
Fisheries Engineering Research Program for seven years; later its would be
renamed the Fish Passage Development and Evaluation Program. This was an
interagency effort to research and mitigate for losses that would result from
the proposed construction of more dams on the Snake and Columbia rivers. Over
time the program was expanded to include representatives of NOAA Fisheries and
the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, along with the state fish and
wildlife agencies. The Bonneville Power Administration and the Northwest Power
and Conservation Council participate as observers. The program also changed
names again to better reflect its focus. Today it is called the Anadromous Fish
this program, over the years the Corps has funded evaluation and monitoring
studies of fish passage and survival at the dams, particularly for juvenile
fish but also for adults. Research areas include 1) juvenile
fish transportation past the dams in barges and trucks, 2) evaluating the
effectiveness of devices that collect or guide juvenile fish around and through
the dams, 3) the effects of gas supersaturation that occurs when water — and
fish — are spilled over the dams, and 4) adult fish passage.
a result of the Corps’ research, adult fishways — fish ladders — have been
improved and juvenile fish bypass systems now are in place at all eight dams on
the lower Snake and Columbia rivers. Juvenile fish are collected for barge
transportation at Lower Granite, Little Goose and Lower Monumental dams on the
lower Snake River and at McNary Dam on the Columbia.
the Corps also continues to work on improvements to navigation, including
deepening the channel in the Columbia and Willamette rivers from 40 feet to 43
feet to accommodate larger vessels. To mitigate impacts to salmon and steelhead
from this dredging, the Corps planned to improve and restore wetland resting
and feeding areas for fish in the lower river.