Rogue River Dam removal = 114,000 more Oregon salmon and steelhead each year

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.

From WaterWatch:

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.


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4 Responses to Rogue River Dam removal = 114,000 more Oregon salmon and steelhead each year

  1. Richard Armas says:

    This is the biggest bag of crap. We have had 80 to 100,000 salmon return with both Savage Rapids and Gold Ray dams in place. But now, all of a sudden they are fish killers. B.S.

  2. jay nicholas says:

    This is indeed an issue more complicated than we can adequately deal with here in this blog.
    While it is true that the Rogue has produced some strong runs in some years. it has also produced some very low runs.

    Part of the differences between the highest runs and the lowest returns are caused by differences in ocean conditions. Some folks look at this and argue that the condition of freshwater habitat is unimportant because the ocean is such a big abundance driver.

    The vast majority of large dams cause serious problems for salmon, and steelhead,trout, and other anadromous species like sturgeon. Some cause big problems, some cause modest problems. I am not familiar with Gold Ray Dam studies, but I have seen reports of studies gong back decades that have measured direct mortality of adult and juvenile salmon at Savage Rapids Dam. An assertion that Savage Rapids has been a fish killer is not new nor is it valid subject for debate.

    Assertions of how many more salmon and steelhead will come back next year or the year after are a little squishieir. Anytime a pro-dam government report (in my opinion, the Bureau of Rec tends to take a gentle approach to dams) cites numbers like were quoted, I take special note. There WILL be more salmon and steelhead smolts that reach the ocean. There WILL be more adults that make it to spawning grounds. There WILL be more adults available for fishing in the ocean and the river. A single number like the one that was presented in this original post makes me cringe, because it implies that the accuracy of our predicative models is a little greater than it really is (my opinion) and that thee increased production numbers will occur every year.

    It is also common for pro-dam advocates to point to occasional big runs in the Columbia River to claim these big runs as evidence that the Columbia River dams are benign.

    That also is not fair. The Columbia dams kill fish in many ways — just plain kill ‘em. Some years the fish passage conditions and the ocean combine to allow big runs in spite of these mortalities. The point isn’t whether or not the dams kill fish, it’s the fact that dams, habitat degradation in freshwater and estuaries, overfishing, and hatchery programs all contribute to an insidious degradation of our wild salmon and steelhead runs.

    The Rogue River is a precious resource. Removal of these two dams is going to help the salmon steelhead, and cutthroat trout too. There are plenty of remaining challenges in the basin, including hundreds of fish passage impediments in tributaries, habitat changes associated with operation of Lost Creek Dam, a huge hatchery program, a voracious appetite to fish, and a rapidly gowning demand for water associated with urban development on tributaries.

    My opinion? We all share in the challenge of protecting the Rogue.


  3. Karl Mueller says:

    Like Jay said, they’ve always been fish killers. Let’s keep this real simple.

    The big runs will be bigger. The small runs will be bigger.

  4. jay nicholas says:

    Karl. Thanks for saving mefrom myself. You are spot-on.


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