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Scientific Investigations Report 2012–5231

Prepared in cooperation with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers
Version 1.1, June 2013

Simulating Potential Structural and Operational Changes for Detroit Dam on the North Santiam River, Oregon, for Downstream Temperature Management 

By Norman L. Buccola, Stewart A. Rounds, Annett B. Sullivan, and John C. Risley

Thumbnail of and link to report PDF (XX MB)Executive Summary

Detroit Dam was constructed in 1953 on the North Santiam River in western Oregon and resulted in the formation of Detroit Lake. With a full-pool storage volume of 455,100 acre-feet and a dam height of 463 feet, Detroit Lake is one of the largest and most important reservoirs in the Willamette River basin in terms of power generation, recreation, and water storage and releases. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers operates Detroit Dam as part of a system of 13 reservoirs in the Willamette Project to meet multiple goals, which include flood-damage protection, power generation, downstream navigation, recreation, and irrigation.

A distinct cycle in water temperature occurs in Detroit Lake as spring and summer heating through solar radiation creates a warm layer of water near the surface and isolates cold water below. Controlling the temperature of releases from Detroit Dam, therefore, is highly dependent on the location, characteristics, and usage of the dam’s outlet structures. Prior to operational changes in 2007, Detroit Dam had a well-documented effect on downstream water temperature that was problematic for endangered salmonid fish species, releasing water that was too cold in midsummer and too warm in autumn. This unnatural seasonal temperature pattern caused problems in the timing of fish migration, spawning, and emergence. 

In this study, an existing calibrated 2-dimensional hydrodynamic water-quality model [CE-QUAL-W2] of Detroit Lake was used to determine how changes in dam operation or changes to the structural release points of Detroit Dam might affect downstream water temperatures under a range of historical hydrologic and meteorological conditions. The results from a subset of the Detroit Lake model scenarios then were used as forcing conditions for downstream CE-QUAL-W2 models of Big Cliff Reservoir (the small reregulating reservoir just downstream of Detroit Dam) and the North Santiam and Santiam Rivers.

Many combinations of environmental, operational, and structural options were explored with the model scenarios. Multiple downstream temperature targets were used along with three sets of environmental forcing conditions representing cool/wet, normal, and hot/dry conditions. Five structural options at Detroit Dam were modeled, including the use of existing outlets, one hypothetical variable-elevation outlet such as a sliding gate, a hypothetical combination of a floating outlet and a fixed-elevation outlet, and a hypothetical combination of a floating outlet and a sliding gate. Finally, 14 sets of operational guidelines for Detroit Dam were explored to gain an understanding of the effects of imposing different downstream minimum streamflows, imposing minimum outflow rules to specific outlets, and managing the level of the lake with different timelines through the year. Selected subsets of these combinations of operational and structural scenarios were run through the downstream models of Big Cliff Reservoir and the North Santiam and Santiam Rivers to explore how hypothetical changes at Detroit Dam might provide improved temperatures for endangered salmonids downstream of the Detroit-Big Cliff Dam complex.

Conclusions that can be drawn from these model scenarios include:

  • The water-temperature targets set by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for releases from Detroit Dam can be met through a combination of new dam outlets or a delayed drawdown of the lake in autumn.

  • Spring and summer dam operations greatly affect the available release temperatures and operational flexibility later in the autumn. Releasing warm water during midsummer tends to keep more cool water available for release in autumn.

  • The ability to meet downstream temperature targets during spring depends on the characteristics of the available outlets. Under existing conditions, although warm water sometimes is present at the lake surface in spring and early summer, such water may not be available for release if the lake level is either well below or well above the spillway crest.

  • Managing lake releases to meet downstream temperature targets depends on having outlet structures that can access both (warm) lake surface water and (cold) deeper lake water throughout the year. The existing outlets at Detroit Dam do not allow near-surface waters to be released during times when the lake surface level is below the spillway (spring and autumn).

  • Using the existing outlets at Detroit Dam, lake level management is important to the water temperature of releases because it controls the availability and depth of water at the spillway. When lake level is lowered below the spillway crest in late summer, the loss of access to warm water at the lake surface can result in abrupt changes to release temperatures.

  • Because the power-generation intakes (penstocks) are 166 feet below the full-pool lake level, imposing minimum power production requirements at Detroit Dam limits the amount of warm surface water that can be expelled from the lake in midsummer, thereby postponing and amplifying warm outflows from Detroit Lake into the autumn spawning season. 

  • Likewise, imposing minimum power production requirements at Detroit Dam in autumn can limit the amount of cool hypolimnetic water that is released from the lake, thereby limiting cool outflows from Detroit Lake during the autumn spawning season. 

  • Model simulations indicate that a delayed drawdown of Detroit Lake in autumn would result in better control over release temperatures in the immediate downstream vicinity of Big Cliff Dam, but the reduced outflows necessary to retain more water in the lake in late summer are more susceptible to rapid heating downstream.

  • Compared to the existing outlets at Detroit Dam, floating or sliding-gate outlet structures can provide greater control over release temperatures because they provide better access to warm water at the lake surface and cooler water at depth.

These conclusions can be grouped into several common themes. First, optimal and flexible management and achievement of downstream temperature goals requires that releases of warm water near the surface of the lake and cold water below the thermocline are both possible with the available dam outlets during spring, summer, and autumn. This constraint can be met to some extent with existing outlets, but only if access to the spillway is extended into autumn by keeping the lake level higher than called for by the current rule curve (the typical target water-surface elevation throughout the year). If new outlets are considered, a variable-elevation outlet such as a sliding gate structure, or a floating outlet in combination with a fixed-elevation outlet at sufficient depth to access cold water, is likely to work well in terms of accessing a range of water temperatures and achieving downstream temperature targets.

Furthermore, model results indicate that it is important to release warm water from near the lake surface during midsummer. If not released downstream, the warm water will build up at the top of the lake as a result of solar energy inputs and the thermocline will deepen, potentially causing warm water to reach the depth of deeper fixed-elevation outlets in autumn, particularly when the lake level is drawn down to make room for flood storage. Delaying the drawdown in autumn can help to keep the thermocline above such outlets and preserve access to cold water.

Although it is important to generate hydropower at Detroit Dam, minimum power-production requirements limit the ability of dam operators to meet downstream temperature targets with existing outlet structures. The location of the power penstocks below the thermocline in spring and most of summer causes the release of more cool water during summer than is optimal. Reducing the power-production constraint allows the temperature target to be met more frequently, but at the cost of less power generation.

Finally, running the Detroit Dam, Big Cliff Dam, and North Santiam and Santiam River models in series allows dam operators to evaluate how different operational strategies or combinations of new dam outlets might affect downstream temperatures for many miles of critical endangered salmonid habitat. Temperatures can change quickly in these downstream reaches as the river exchanges heat with its surroundings, and heating or cooling of 6 degrees Celsius is not unusual in the 40–50 miles downstream of Big Cliff Dam.

The results published in this report supersede preliminary results published in U.S. Geological Survey Open-File Report 2011-1268 (Buccola and Rounds, 2011). Those preliminary results are still valid, but the results in this report are more current and comprehensive.

First posted October 30, 2012

Revised June 11, 2013

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

Part or all of this report is presented in Portable Document Format (PDF); the latest version of Adobe Reader or similar software is required to view it. Download the latest version of Adobe Reader, free of charge.

Suggested citation:

Buccola, N.L, Rounds, S.A., Sullivan, A.B., and Risley, J.C., 2012, Simulating potential structural and operational changes for Detroit Dam on the North Santiam River, Oregon, for downstream temperature management: U.S. Geological Survey Scientific Investigations Report 2012–5231, 68 p.

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