Newport, Oregon, is a thriving city of 10,000 on the Oregon coast that is popular with tourists and home to many businesses and organizations. However, the city faces an existential threat. Its two aging dams would not survive a moderately sized earthquake and suffer from seepage issues. A dam breach would cause loss of life and would erase at a stroke the city’s ability to supply basic water service to its residents and business community. Newport Mayor Dean Sawyer is leading the effort to raise awareness of this issue across Oregon and the entire nation. He and his team are leading a publicity campaign, holding tours of the dam, and seeking funding from the State of Oregon and from Congress and federal agencies. In this interview, he tells Municipal Water Leader about his efforts and his recent trip to Washington, DC.
Municipal Water Leader: Please tell us about your background and how you came to be in your current position.
Dean Sawyer: I served with the Newport Police Department for 30 years in both command and supervision positions. After I retired, I saw some issues in the city that concerned me as a resident and public servant, and 10 years ago, I decided to run for city council. I have been on the council ever since, and a year ago I was elected mayor. I ran for mayor because I wanted to improve our downtown area and push forward the dam issue.
Municipal Water Leader: Please tell us about Newport, Oregon.
Dean Sawyer: Newport is a port city on the central Oregon coast with a population of 10,000. It is the county seat and a regional hub. We also have several large employers here, including the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s West Coast headquarters, Rogue Ales and Spirits, Oregon State University’s Marine Science Center, and the Oregon Coast Aquarium. In addition to our residential population, nearly 5,000 people commute to Newport for work each day. Newport has a significant number of second homes, and the city receives about 2.5 million tourists a year; tourism is our biggest industry.
Municipal Water Leader: What are your water sources?
Dean Sawyer: We have two reservoirs, built in 1951 and 1968. The Oregon coast is an active seismic area, and we’ve been told by our engineers that even a 3.5-magnitude earthquake would cause the dams to fail. About a year ago, we were notified by the state that the dams have an advanced seepage issue, which we are now actively monitoring. Advanced seepage increases the risk to the community. The two reservoirs provide water to the local community and to the industries here. We have one of the largest fishing fleets on the Oregon/Washington coast, and during peak season about 50 percent of our water goes to the fish processing plants. If that water supply were to disappear, the fishing fleet would leave town. We also provide water to a local brewery and to the Oregon Coast Aquarium.
Municipal Water Leader: If an earthquake or the seepage issue caused one or both of the dams to fail, what would the consequences be?
Dean Sawyer: If the dams failed, the water would take out several homes downstream. The people who live in those homes would only have only seconds to leave, which means that, unfortunately, they would likely perish. It could also take out U.S. Highway 101, a major arterial on the Oregon coast. The effect would be huge. We’ve been told that it would take 6–8 years to build a new dam. If we couldn’t provide water for that period of time, the local community would close up. If there were no water to take a shower, make beer, or process fish, it would be tremendously difficult for the local economy to survive.
Municipal Water Leader: How many people live in the flood zone you described?
Dean Sawyer: We believe that at least 20 homes would be affected.
Municipal Water Leader: Is the community at large aware of the seriousness of this problem?
Dean Sawyer: Yes. We have partnered with Deep Dig Research for the past 8 years on a campaign called SOS, or Save Our Supply. We’ve spread the word using the local media and radio and have held several public tours of our dam. We’ve had community and state leaders and congressional staffers come out and look at the condition of the dams. As a result of our ongoing campaign, I’m pretty sure most people in town know that the estimated costs are $70–80 million. Our community could not raise that much money via taxation without driving people out of town.
Municipal Water Leader: So that would be the cost of new dams?
Dean Sawyer: Instead of two dams, we would build one. We’ve done a lot of studies on building a dam, because there really isn’t a lot of information out there on how to build dams to a seismic standard. We’ve learned that if we raise the estimated height of the dam by about 5 feet, we could minimize the use of the Siletz River as a backup source during the summer, which we currently do. That would reduce the effect on instream flow and would help the salmon run on the Siletz River.
Municipal Water Leader: What is the city’s current emergency plan for a potential breach?
Dean Sawyer: It’s standard disaster planning, which is a multiincident response. Basically, if the dams are breached, we would respond first to save as much life and property as possible. Other than that, we would have to reach out to the state and federal governments to assist us in bringing in water for the local residents and to develop a plan to build a short-term dam so that we could start providing water again on a regular basis.
Municipal Water Leader: What are the prospects for raising the necessary money through taxation?
Dean Sawyer: We have a couple of significant local bonds paid for through property taxes, including for our hospital, our water treatment plant, our international port terminal, and our school system. These all affect our property taxes at the end of the year. About 4 years ago, we proposed a $9 million bond for a new swimming pool. The first time it was voted on, it failed. The second time, it passed with a margin of 64 votes. You can see the challenges that a $9 million bond faced. Extrapolate from that what would occur with a $70 million bond. It’s difficult to get something of that magnitude passed. Also, about 35 percent of our population are senior citizens. A lot of them are on fixed incomes and could not afford a huge increase in their tax bill.
Municipal Water Leader: What role have the state and federal governments played?
Dean Sawyer: We recently approached the state legislature and asked for $40 million in funding, or half our anticipated project costs. So far, we have received $4 million in lottery bonds for dam design and permitting costs. Unfortunately, that allocation was one of several under consideration for a possible veto. We met with Governor Kate Brown’s staff and provided her office with information about our city’s funding strategy and efforts at the federal level. In the end, she did not veto the $4 million allocation and instead created a task force to address high-hazard dams statewide, which Newport will participate in. We greatly appreciate this initial assistance from the state and thank the governor for maintaining the funding allocation. That $4 million will pay for preliminary design work. As of today, we’ve acquired about $8 million from local, state, and federal sources; all that has gone to research and design.
Municipal Water Leader: Have you considered lowering the water behind the dam to put less pressure on it?
Dean Sawyer: We’ve looked at that. Unfortunately, we could not meet the water demand of our community in the summer without the water stored in the reservoir. It’s not a viable solution.
Municipal Water Leader: Have you looked into developing alternative sources of water?
Dean Sawyer: The Siletz River is the backup source that we use during the summer when Big Creek is low. We have water rights for 6 cubic feet per second of the Siletz River’s flow. The problem is that the Siletz River’s flow in the summer is low as well. Even if we wanted to pipe that water to the city, we would need reservoirs to store it in order to meet the high demand of the fish plants and the tourism industry during the day. The city has researched desalination, wastewater reuse, and accessing water from a different source, but rebuilding a dam at Big Creek has always penciled out to be the least costly and least environmentally disruptive option.
Municipal Water Leader: Are there other cities in Oregon or elsewhere that are dealing with similar issues?
Dean Sawyer: Yes. Four dams in Oregon have been identified as unsafe or structurally deficient. A recentarticle by the Associated Press said that at least 1,600 dams nationwide are dealing with similar issues.
Municipal Water Leader: With so many dams in so many places having these issues, is the problem attracting attention on the national level or in Congress?
Dean Sawyer: We’re trying to attract attention to non– federally owned high-hazard dams. We’ve lobbied at the state level with the state legislature, and in November 2019, Water Strategies helped us present our case to the federal legislators and bureaucrats in Washington, DC. Unfortunately, there really is no single source of funding for dam replacements either at the state or at the federal level. The interesting thing is that, if our dams do fail, the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s disaster funds could provide enough money to replace them. The problem is that, if our dams fail today, it would take 6–8 years to rebuild. Our community is unlikely to survive that.
Municipal Water Leader: What is your message to Congress?
Dean Sawyer: Our message to Congress is to point out the critical funding gap that exists to address safety and resiliency issues for dams across the country and to encourage the development of funding sources. We’re not the only ones who are dealing with this issue. Federal policies on dam building generally deal with irrigation, flood control, and environmental issues. We don’t fall clearly under any of those categories; we are just trying to supply basic water services to serve our population.
Municipal Water Leader: Was there anything else you wanted to touch on?
Dean Sawyer: I’d like to talk about Water Strategies. Being from a small town on the Oregon coast, I’d never used the services of a Washington, DC, lobbying group, but it was suggested that we use the services of Water Strategies, and I’m glad we did. We had little knowledge of the complexities of dealing with the policymakers in Washington. Water Strategies made that process easy and streamlined. From the moment we arrived at Water Strategies’ office till the moment we left, they focused on our issues and how we could deliver our message to the right people. Water Strategies had a full 3 days of meetings with our congressional delegation staffers and numerous key members of federal agencies scheduled for us. Water Strategies started out by asking questions about our project, and then made suggestions about how to craft our message for the various policymakers we were scheduled to meet with. Water Strategies knows its business model well, and also knows the various federal offices. We would have been lost trying to find them in the maze of federal buildings by ourselves. After the whirlwind of meetings in Washington, I would never do it again without the help of the professionals at Water Strategies. I can definitely tell our constituents that the money spent on Water Strategies was money well spent.
Municipal Water Leader: What is your vision for the future?
Dean Sawyer: We’re going to continue campaigning for capital funds. We’ll continue to hold guided tours of the dam to key stakeholders we’re trying to educate. For example, we recently showed representatives of the local hospital and the Newport Chamber of Commerce the dam and explained its problems, the cost of a new dam, and the technologies we have decided to use. We’ll continue meeting with our state legislators and the governor’s office. The governor has started a task force for dam safety in Oregon and named me the first member of the group. I’m excited about the task force because it’ll bring more statewide awareness to the issue. We’re also going to continue working with our federal legislators and with Water Strategies to bring our message to the federal level.