Rogue River dams to come down
Salmon runs are expected to grow in iconic Oregon river
June 08, 2008 MATTHEW PREUSCH The Oregonian
GRANTS PASS -- One of Oregon's iconic rivers is on the cusp of
a major makeover.
What's happening on the Rogue River isn't so much transformation
as reversion. Dams built during the previous century will come
down. Reservoirs will return to running water.
And soon, for the first time in more than 100 years, the Rogue
could flow unimpeded for 157 miles from the Cascade foothills to
the Pacific Ocean. Four dam modification projects are in different
stages, three on the main stem and a fourth along Elk Creek, a
Dam decommissioning on the Rogue, the largest salmon-producing
river in Oregon outside of the Columbia River system, is part of
an accelerating trend of removing or altering aging and
environmentally harmful dams across the Northwest and the United
The most recent tally by the conservation group American Rivers
estimates about 273 dams were removed between 1999 and 2006. Last
summer, Marmot Dam on the Sandy River was taken out, the largest
removal in Oregon history. This summer, the Chiloquin Dam on the
Klamath Basin's Sprague River is set to come out. Plans are under
way to remove other dams on the White Salmon and Elwha rivers in
On the Rogue, the most costly and high-profile project is the
removal of the 87-year-old Savage Rapids Dam east of Grants Pass
and just upstream from the historic Weasku Inn, a favorite fishing
getaway for Clark Gable.
The fate of the 456-foot-long, 39-foot-high dam was debated for a
decade before irrigators, government agencies and conservationists
agreed in 2001 to remove it so long as pumps could be built to
divert water from the river for hay and pasture plots served by
the Grants Pass Irrigation District.
"This is one of those deals where everyone comes out OK,"
irrigation district manager Dan Shepard said recently while
overlooking the dam as it held back the Rogue for one final
The dam's fish ladders, as well as some fish screens, no longer
meet federal standards. The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation thinks
removing the dam will increase the number of salmon reaching
spawning grounds by 22 percent a year, an increase of about
Shepard's district will save on maintenance costs for the aging
dam that he said is "nickel and diming us to death." Last week,
for instance, he had to spend $1,500 to replace a gear box on a
50-year-old fish screen.
Next year, the new twin pumps will go online, supplying about 150
cubic feet per second of water to roughly 11,000 customers, and
the north side of the dam will come down. After that, an estimated
200,000 cubic yards of sediment that has accumulated behind the
dam will start to wash downstream.
The $39 million project is being paid for with mostly federal
funds and $3 million from the Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board.
Upstream, the same contractors are setting up near the Gold Hill
Dam, which, after the Savage Rapids, is considered the biggest
obstacle to salmon and steelhead on the Rogue.
This month, the state enacted emergency restrictions against
fishing for spring chinook in the lower Rogue because the run is
less than a quarter of the recent 10-year average. The 2006 and
2007 runs were the second- and third-lowest respectively since
The city of Gold Hill used the 60-year-old dam to divert water
until building new intake facilities in 2006. The $1 million
removal project should be completed by next spring.
A bit upstream is Gold Ray Dam, a defunct power-producing dam now
owned by Jackson County. The county received a $100,000 grant this
year to complete a study of the sediments collected behind the
century-old dam, which will be followed by a removal feasibility
"And depending on the result, we'll go in there and start dam
removal," said Lin Bernhardt, the county's natural resources
Further still up the Rogue and 11/2 miles up Elk Creek, the Army
Corps of Engineers is planning to cut a notch in the Elk Creek
Dam. Construction of that dam began in 1971, but it was stopped by
a lawsuit in 1987 when the dam was only a third of its height. The
creek is considered a crucial salmon spawning area for the Rogue.
The Corps' plan is to return the creek to its old gradient and
alignment to help migrating coho salmon while leaving much of the
dam intact should construction resume sometime in the future. The
notching should be done by the fall.
When and if the three main-stem dams are removed, the result will
be that a boater could paddle flat- and white-water uninterrupted
from the Lost Creek Dam through Shady Cove, Grants Pass, the wild
and scenic lower river and into the tidewater at Gold Beach.
Fish heading up and downstream also will have a less perilous
journey to make, all of which is good news to Bob Hunter, a Rogue
Valley fly fisherman and attorney for the river conservation group
Waterwatch of Oregon, which has been fighting for dam removal for
"It's really great for the Rogue River," he said. "In a few years
from now people are going to wonder what all the controversy was
Matthew Preusch: 541-382-2006; email@example.com