Bob Hunter, founding board member of WaterWatch and the Oregon Water Trust, recently came to Eugene to speak with our local Trout Unlimited Chapter about removal of Rogue River Dams.
In an effort spanning more than 20 years, Hunter and WaterWatch have fought entrenched state and local bureaucracies to save one of the largest salmon and steelhead runs in our state. And now we’re on the cusp of reaping the rewards of WaterWatch’s hard work.
Savage Rapids Dam is the first man made obstacle on the Rogue River between the Ocean and Grants Pass. The dam is 39-foot high, 500-foot long and spans the mainstem of the Rogue River at river mile 107.
According to Hunter, there are over 500 miles of salmon and steelhead spawning habitat upstream of Savage Rapids Dam, including 50 miles on the mainstem of the Rogue River. All spring chinook salmon spawn upstream of the dam, and the dam impedes passage of significant portions of the four other runs of salmon and steelhead in the Rogue
The dam has long been considered the biggest fish killer on the Rogue. The dam harms and delays returning adult fish, but the pump turbine system has never been properly screened and it kills a lot of fry heading downstream. The 3.5 miles of reservoir flood prime fall chinook spawning habitat.
The dam is strictly an irrigation diversion dam and is being replaced by pumps. It does not provide any flood control, storage, navigation, or hydropower function. The structure has been a considerable problem for salmon because the facility’s fish ladders and screens do not meet current legal standards. There is also increased predation of juvenile salmon in the seasonal reservoir pool created by the dam and after juveniles pass through the dam’s bypass systems. Additionally, the reservoir pool covers over 3.5 miles of fall chinook salmon spawning habitat. This habitat could be reclaimed when the dam is removed.
According to a 1995 Bureau of Reclamation Planning Report and Environmental Statement (PRES), removal of the dam would increase fish escapement at the site by 22%. This translates into approximately 114,000 more salmon and steelhead each year (87,900 that would be available for sport and commercial harvest and 26,700 that would escape to spawn) valued at approximately $5,000,000 annually. Reclamation’s PRES also found removing the dam and replacing it with pumps to be more cost effective than trying to fix the ladders and screens.
History: The dam was built by the Grants Pass Irrigation District in the 1920s. By 1988, the GPID had 100 miles of open leaky canals and was asking for more water. The district attempted to secure additional water rights to the Rogue in 1988, and that’s when WaterWatch, The Rogue Fly Fishers raised the issue of fish passage.
The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation had determined that dam removal and irrigation pump replacements would be cheaper than fixing the dam, and the GPID was onboard. But state politics got in the way and the GPID reneged on the dam removal deal.
Through the Endangered Species Act listing of Oregon Coho, WaterWatch, EarthJustice and Trout Unlimited locked down an agreement through litigation, and finally got to work on how to remove the dam. OWEB stepped up and pledged $3 million – the most they’ve ever spent toward dam removal, and that made the project real. In October 2006, the first dam removal equipment arrived on site.
This is going to be the last year of a fish trying to pass Savage Rapids Dam. You can see the gallery of Savage Rapids dam removal images. The removal project is expected to be completed by late 2009.
While Savage Rapids is the biggest fish killer, WaterWatch has coordinated with other groups to facilitate the removal of Gold Hill Dam, Gold Ray Dam and Elk Creek Dam.
Gold Hill Dam, which was identified as the 2nd greatest hindrance to fish passage in the Rogue Basin, after Savage Rapids Dam, was removed in Summer 2008.
The dam, which was built in the early 1900’s, once served as a diversion to a power generation facility, and was the source of the City’s municipal drinking water. The power facility is no longer in use, and the City removes water through a new water supply intake built in 2006.
Gold Ray Dam is a 38-foot high, 360-foot long defunct hydropower dam located in Jackson County, Oregon on the mainstem of the Rogue River at river mile 125.7. Its removal represents one of the largest dam removals ever undertaken in the United States.
Upon removal in late 2010, Gold Ray Dam will represent the fourth significant dam removed or notched in the Rogue Basin in three years, and mark the end of the largest number of significant dam removals ever to occur within a single river basin in so short a time span.
With Gold Ray Dam removed, there will be 157 unhindered river miles from Lost Creek to the ocean.
According to WaterWatch, Elk Creek Dam has been sitting partially constructed and serving no useful purpose for decades. The dam blocked Elk Creek and its inadequate fish passage facilities caused major problems for salmon and steelhead. Historically, an estimated 30% of the Rogue Basin’s coho salmon spawned in Elk Creek.
They blew a notch in the dam with dynamite in July 2008.
Despite petty political grandstanding and bureaucratic stonewalling, after twenty years we’re laying TNT and backhoes into these dams and that’s got to be one of the most satisfying outcomes I can imagine.