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The butterfly effect

Between threatened wildlife and a maze of interests and regulations, the effort to rebuild the dam at Hagg Lake could take another 15 years
by: Photo courtesy of Dana Ross This delicate Fender’s Blue butterfly is just one of many things standing in the way of raising the Scoggins Dam at Henry Hagg Lake.

Ensuring access to clean water for only a few hundred thousand people in one county can take decades, millions of dollars and could be entirely derailed by even the tiniest members of the local wildlife.

Washington County water management officials and their partners are over 10 years into a project to raise Scoggins Dam at Hagg Lake in the hopes of providing clean water for several hundred thousand people in the future. But there is still a long way to go. The project has thus far faced years of bureaucratic red tape, the discovery of rare and endangered species near the dam and the federal government stepping in with demands of its own.

In fact, the federal government conducted a seismic study of the dam several years ago and determined that it had to undergo significant upgrades to withstand a large quake.

Most recently, as the environment around the lake was studied to determine the impact of raising the dam, endangered plants and a rare species of butterfly were found in the area. It could take years to determine if one of the endangered plants, host to the rare butterfly, could be successfully replanted elsewhere.

The project has also drawn a gaggle of partners, including Tualatin Valley Irrigation District, which provides water to farmers, Clean Water Services, the countywide sewer agency, and the Joint Water Commission, the primary supplier of drinking water in Washington County.

County officials say that in their opinion leaving the dam as its current height is not a viable option, so they have approached each challenge head-on with the end goal of providing more water for the county in anticipation of its future growth.

If they get their way, Washington County residents can expect to see the project completed in -wait for it - 2025.

The start of a long road

Construction on the earth embankment dam was completed in 1975 to hold back several creeks that run down into the area. The lake formed was named Hagg Lake after the dairy farmer, Henry Hagg, whose idea it was to create a water source for the area. He first initiated the idea in the 1940's.

The dam contains an impervious clay core and the structure includes a concrete spillway and outlet pipeline, which were all built to federal seismic codes in the mid-1970's

The current dam project began as one to simply raise the dam at Hagg Lake, which lies northwest of Gaston. The dam is operated and maintained by the Tualatin Valley Irrigation District and releases water into Scoggins Creek, a tributary of the Tualatin River. Hagg Lake provides drinking water for more than 220,000 residents of Washington County; irrigation for 17,000 acres of agricultural land; and helps maintain flow in the Tualatin River during the dry summer months to protect water quality and fish habitat.

According to U.S. Census Bureau data the population of Washington County has grown by nearly 19 percent since 2000 and county officials project that upward trend to continue. If the population grows, so must the water supply.

"There is no doubt this region will need more water," said Tom VanderPlaat, water supply project manager for Clean Water Services "2050 is the horizon for this project that we are looking at."

In conjunction with raising the dam, the Joint Water Commission's ideal plan includes construction of a pipeline from the dam to the water treatment plant, and expansion of the JWC Water Treatment Plant near Forest Grove.

Currently, most of eastern Washington County imports its water from reservoirs in the western half of the county. Forest Grove in particular gets most of its water from the Clear Creek Watershed and the Barney Reservoir.

From Hagg Lake, the water is used for drinking and for irrigating crops, evidenced by small concrete pump boxes that can be seen at the edge of farmland all along Glencoe Road.

In 2001 Washington County officials and its partners formed a joint funding agreement to explore the possibility of expanding Hagg Lake as a water supply. The Tualatin Basin Water Supply Project includes Clean Water Services, the Cities of Beaverton, Forest Grove, Hillsboro, Tigard, Tualatin, Lake Oswego Corporation, Tualatin Valley Irrigation District, and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, according to the Tualatin Valley Water District website.

The lake has enough water to supply current demands and fills to nearly 95 percent capacity. If the dam was raised, its levels would drop so water would need to be pumped in during the summer through a pump back system which would have to be built.

Under the current expansion plan the capacity of Hagg Lake would essentially double adding over 50,000 acre feet of water to Scoggins Reservoir each year, of which the District would own approximately 23,000 acre feet, according to the TVW website.

Of the total volume 70 percent would be used for drinking water and 30 percent would be used for environmental purposes like controlling creek flow for fish and crop irrigation.

In 2004, the original plan for expanding the reservoir initially suggested raising the dam by piling dirt downstream. This would have required the removal of 2 to 3 million yards of dirt. The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation owns the structure and simply coordinates repairs and maintenance with the irrigation district, the Joint Water Commission and Clean Water Services. Thus, the government's permission had to be sought for such an undertaking and with this a new chapter to the dam story began.

A federal logjam

In 2008 the federal Bureau of Reclamation stepped in because of its concerns over the seismic safety of the structure.

A safety study was conducted over the course of several years and it was determined that the dam could withstand something like an 8.5 earthquake and is currently safe but it could not withstand "the big one."

A Cascadia Subduction Zone quake, which could be at least a magnitude 9 or more on the Richter Scale is predicted to occur in this region sometime between now and centuries from now. In the name of preparedness, the Federal Safety of Dams Program routinely evaluates the structural integrity of Reclamation dams to identify potential public safety risks.

Such seismic upgrades would be paid for from programatic funding to the Safety of Dams program-85 percent of the total would be covered by the federal government and 15 percent would be paid for by local repayment contractors. Forest Grove is still paying on its small part of the lake that it owns but it's the Tualatin Valley Irrigation District that would shoulder much of the cost. It has over 50 percent of the water and the district's 500 patrons could be on the hook for millions over the course of up to 50 years.

The Reclamation Department's "seismic modification cost" estimate is tentatively expected later this year from the federal government.

"This remains a priority for the Bureau of Reclamation," VanderPlaat said. "Because doing nothing is not an option."

The cost of raising the dam cannot be estimated right now because that can only be determined after the federal government makes its plans known for what kind if seismic upgrades must be done.

The lake is surrounded by recreation and park area that includes a road which circles the lake and one that runs across the dam. There are 116 landowners adjacent to the lake, 17 of whom could be impacted in some way by an expansion. Only 4 or 5 would be significantly impacted and only 3 of those privately owned lots contain homes. Two of those homes are located up Tanner Creek and have already been sold to the government. The first was sold in 2007 and in May the other plot of land was purchased.

Jut south of the dam is the oldest of the two Simpson Lumber mills. Officials say it would only be minimally impacted by raising the dam but it could face changes in the way it disposes of waste water because of alterations to the water flow in the nearby creek.

The butterfly and the lupine

Clean Water Services is almost 90 percent complete with a long-term assessment that must be conducted by law called the Draft Planning Report and Environmental Impact Statement. It takes into account any impacts that might be felt by the surrounding wildlife if the dam were to be altered. The process is expected to be completed by May 2012 but that date has already been pushed back many times over the years.

In mid-June an exciting ecological discovery was made. The Kincaid's Lupine, a threatened plant, and the Fender's Blue, an endangered butterfly were discovered around Hagg Lake. These species are endemic to the Willamette Valley and part of southwest Washington, according to Kathy Cushman, a land and water specialist with the Bureau of Reclamation.

These dusty looking blue butterflies have only about a 10-day lifespan and are very rare. They are only found where the Kincaid's Lupine grows, which is host to this butterfly species. The plant has only a short time every spring when its seeds can be collected before they burst forth to further propagate the plant.

"The dam raise could take out about 70 percent of the known Lupin population at Hagg Lake," Cushman said. "So the impact on the butterfly would be a 70 percent loss of its host plant."

However, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation is working with Clean Water Services and the U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife to come up with a plan to expand the plant's habitat, mitigating the adverse impact on its population.

Seeds from the plant have been collected for replanting but it could take up to five years before it is known whether replanting efforts are successful. These plants are remnants of the kind of the Upland Prairie Habitat that used to encompass almost the entire Willamette Valley before it was logged and irrigated for farming over 100 years ago.

Some of this virgin habitat remains at Hagg Lake but not much. As invasive species like Scotch Broom and blackberries encroach on the land there are few places that can allow the Lupin to thrive.

"If we are able to maintain habitat for the butterfly, we maintain habitat for a whole suite of plants and animals," Cushman said. "The whole lake is not a good habitat. Portions of lake have already been converted to other kinds of habitats. These plants and butterfly are on the south facing slopes which retain a certain kind of soil structure, good drainage and no invasive species."

It's possible there are other endangered pants in the area and the U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife are in the process of determining that now.

"We are glad we found it today and not right before the water level was raised," said Mark Jockers, government and public affairs manager for Clean Water Services. "We have the luxury of time now to address it."

Many of the other Lupines in the Willamette Valley are located on privately owned land so to find this on federal land is an opportunity to closely examine the plant and to protect its numbers as well as its visiting butterflies.

"This was a find. There was a lot of excitement when we discovered it," Jockers said.