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Federal cuts trim Gold Ray aftermath studies

Federal budget cuts have forced Jackson County to scale back studies chronicling changes to the Rogue River from Gold Ray Dam's 2010 removal, but an infusion of lottery money has kept the most important studies alive, officials say.

NOAA-Fisheries has pulled its $275,000 grant, which was slated to pay for the final two years of a five-year effort to study various changes to the Rogue, its flora, fauna, water-quality and even economic impacts of the Rogue flowing freely past the dam site after 106 years of blockage.

But that money was cut from NOAA-Fisheries budget, sending county officials scrambling to fill the void.

The Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board has awarded the county a $135,385 grant, which the county Board of Commissioners this week approved with no match in county dollars.

The money from OWEB, which is funded largely through lottery profits, will allow the continuation of what county officials called the most significant post-dam removal studies for two more years.

Those include the socioeconomic impacts of removing the Rogue's last artificial barrier in its lower 157 miles, the effects on wild coho salmon and other fish species, as well as some downstream impacts to groundwater, wetlands and stream channels in the post-dam era.

These studies had been in place for three years one year of pre-removal data and two years after removal. But that span is not long enough to count returns of wild salmon and steelhead born after the dam's removal, because the majority of those fish remain at sea and have yet to mature.

"As we're cutting this back, we're going to focus on the studies where we'll find the most to learn," said John Vial, the county's roads and parks manager, who is overseeing the dam-removal project for the county.

"If we stopped these studies at year three, you don't even get the life cycle of the salmonids coming back," Vial said.

But gone now are bird population studies for the old Gold Ray Reservoir, which was largely drained by the dam's removal, as well as some river-bottom mapping, water-quality surveys and aerial photographs documenting the largest alteration to the Rogue since the building of Lost Creek Dam near Trail in 1977.

"The most crucial ones we kept, but we're not doing everything," Vial said. "We never said we were doing everything."

The Ashland-based Klamath Bird Observatory was part of the multidisciplinary team monitoring changes, with its role being a study of upstream riparian habitat and bird populations in what used to be Kelly Slough. Included in the work was a look at the abundance of birds such as yellow-breasted chats, yellow warblers and willow flycatchers all considered indicator species of healthy riparian zones, said Jaime Stephens, KBO's research and monitoring director.

Stephens said studying those populations several more years would have gone a long way toward measuring not only the impact of removal upstream of the dam site but also help quantify whether upstream riparian restoration work was reaching desired conditions.

"Our intention was always for it to be a long-term study," Stephens said. "That's one of KBO's primary projects, and we'll seek money to continue it."

The OWEB grant kicks in for monitoring efforts from September 2012 through August 2014. The money will be funneled through the Rogue Valley Council of Governments, which has an agreement with the county to handle post-removal habitat restoration efforts and monitoring.

When county and RVCOG officials began putting together the slate of pre- and post-removal studies, the project was seen as an outdoor laboratory to look closely at what happens when a major dam is removed from a major river.

"Removing dams is still something fairly new in the Pacific Northwest, and each one is different," said Craig Tuss, a fish biologist hired by RVCOG to oversee the project. "It's losing an opportunity to gather information that could inform us about future dam removals.

Most people assume that removing dams from rivers like the Rogue help restore their natural functions, "but we're making a lot of assumptions about removing dams," Tuss said. "It's good to have information to back up what your assumptions are."

Tuss said he intends to seek more money in the future from OWEB and other sources to continue some monitoring past the five-year window.

The original Gold Ray Dam and powerhouse were built in 1904 on the Rogue upstream of Gold Hill, providing the first hydroelectricity to Medford. It was mothballed by Pacific Power in 1972 and deeded to Jackson County for potential use as a park.

The dam's fish ladder, however, did not meet federal fish-passage requirements, and the county sought the dam's removal to reduce its liability. It received $5.6 million in grants for the removal. The land now is a county park, and county officials are exploring what, if any, improvements should be made there.

Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470, or email at mfreeman@mailtribune.com.


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