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Scientific Investigations Report 2010–5153

Prepared in cooperation with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Oregon Association of Clean Water Agencies

Thermal Effects of Dams in the Willamette River Basin, Oregon

By Stewart A. Rounds

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Methods were developed to assess the effects of dams on streamflow and water temperature in the Willamette River and its major tributaries. These methods were used to estimate the flows and temperatures that would occur at 14 dam sites in the absence of upstream dams, and river models were applied to simulate downstream flows and temperatures under a no-dams scenario. The dams selected for this study include 13 dams built and operated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) as part of the Willamette Project, and 1 dam on the Clackamas River owned and operated by Portland General Electric (PGE). Streamflows in the absence of upstream dams for 2001–02 were estimated for USACE sites on the basis of measured releases, changes in reservoir storage, a correction for evaporative losses, and an accounting of flow effects from upstream dams. For the PGE dam, no-project streamflows were derived from a previous modeling effort that was part of a dam-relicensing process. Without-dam streamflows were characterized by higher peak flows in winter and spring and much lower flows in late summer, as compared to with-dam measured flows.

Without-dam water temperatures were estimated from measured temperatures upstream of the reservoirs (the USACE sites) or derived from no-project model results (the PGE site). When using upstream data to estimate without-dam temperatures at dam sites, a typical downstream warming rate based on historical data and downstream river models was applied over the distance from the measurement point to the dam site, but only for conditions when the temperature data indicated that warming might be expected. Regressions with measured temperatures from nearby or similar sites were used to extend the without-dam temperature estimates to the entire 2001–02 time period. Without-dam temperature estimates were characterized by a more natural seasonal pattern, with a maximum in July or August, in contrast to the measured patterns at many of the tall dam sites where the annual maximum temperature typically occurred in September or October. Without-dam temperatures also tended to have more daily variation than with-dam temperatures.

Examination of the without-dam temperature estimates indicated that dam sites could be grouped according to the amount of streamflow derived from high-elevation, spring-fed, and snowmelt-driven areas high in the Cascade Mountains (Cougar, Big Cliff/Detroit, River Mill, and Hills Creek Dams: Group A), as opposed to flow primarily derived from lower-elevation rainfall-driven drainages (Group B). Annual maximum temperatures for Group A ranged from 15 to 20 °C, expressed as the 7-day average of the daily maximum (7dADM), whereas annual maximum 7dADM temperatures for Group B ranged from 21 to 25 °C. Because summertime stream temperature is at least somewhat dependent on the upstream water source, it was important when estimating without-dam temperatures to use correlations to sites with similar upstream characteristics. For that reason, it also is important to maintain long-term, year-round temperature measurement stations at representative sites in each of the Willamette River basin’s physiographic regions.

Streamflow and temperature estimates downstream of the major dam sites and throughout the Willamette River were generated using existing CE-QUAL-W2 flow and temperature models. These models, originally developed for the Willamette River water-temperature Total Maximum Daily Load process, required only a few modifications to allow them to run under the greatly reduced without-dam flow conditions. Model scenarios both with and without upstream dams were run. Results showed that Willamette River streamflow without upstream dams was reduced to levels much closer to historical pre-dam conditions, with annual minimum streamflows approximately one-half or less of dam-augmented levels. Thermal effects of the dams varied according to the time of year, from cooling in mid-summer to warming in early autumn. Thermal effects diminished with increasing distance downstream, from as much as 6 °C or more at most of the taller dam sites to a level typically less than 1 °C downstream of the Santiam River confluence and less than 0.5 °C downstream of the Clackamas River confluence. Modeled without-dam temperatures in the Willamette River had a higher maximum and a lower minimum than modeled with-dam temperatures for the June–October modeled time period. Upstream dams have a substantial and measurable effect on streamflow and water temperature, both at the dam sites and downstream throughout the entire Willamette River.

First posted August 17, 2010

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For additional information contact:
Director, Oregon Water Science Center
U.S. Geological Survey
2130 SW 5th Ave.
Portland, Oregon 97201

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Suggested citation:

Rounds, S.A., 2010, Thermal effects of dams in the Willamette River basin, Oregon: U.S. Geological Survey Scientific Investigations Report 2010-5153, 64 p.

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