88 years later, dam makes way

88 years later, dam makes way

By Mark Freeman
Mail Tribune
October 09, 2009

Demolition crews breach Savage Rapids Dam today

If all goes as planned, the Rogue River will flow through its historic channel at Savage Rapids today when the dam that has blocked the river there for 88 years is breached.

Demolition crews are scheduled this morning to slowly begin diverting the Rogue into a new “pilot channel” carved through the gravel where the dam’s north side has spanned the Rogue near the town of Rogue River since 1921.

What will start as a trickle will eventually turn into the full force of the Rogue River hurtling past the remnants of the dam. The beginnings of that flow are expected to be followed by a small flotilla of rafts and kayaks that will jockey to make the first float through the partially dismantled dam.

In an attempt to reduce rubberneckers along Highway 99 and floaters in the Rogue, the federal Bureau of Reclamation has remained coy about just when it will start filling the channel and when project leaders expect it to be floatable.

“We already have enough of a circus up there,” said Bob Hamilton, the bureau’s project manager.

Though the channel will be straight and clear of boulders and debris, Hamilton said he was concerned for the safety of boaters there — especially if the channel’s gravel banks erode and collapse as the Rogue carves a new path.

“There’s no guarantee Mother Nature won’t decide to go cut into the bank,” Hamilton said. “It’s unpredictable how that river’s going to act within the pilot channel.”

Once completed, the Rogue will flow through the new channel and provide open passage in time for the upcoming run of wild coho salmon, which are a threatened species under the federal Endangered Species Act.

Before it was removed, the dam was considered one of the top 10 impediments to salmon passage in Oregon.

Sending water into the new channel will cause some downstream turbidity, but the bulk of the sand, rocks and gravel that was trapped behind the dam is not expected to be pushed downstream until winter storms arrive — and those normally include plenty of other turbidity, Hamilton said.

The turbid flows were not expected to be a detriment to wild fall chinook salmon now spawning in the main stem of the Rogue, said Russ Stauff, acting regional manager for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.

The amount of sediment is expected to be light and not unusual for what normally hits the eggs freshly laid in channel gravels, Stauff said. Chinook’s life history, which includes multiple-aged fish spawning simultaneously, also creates a natural buffer for withstanding single events like this, he said.

“It’s really a negligible issue in the context of (dam) removal,” Stauff said.

The new channel will expose what’s left of the dam’s south side, where two more concrete panels are scheduled to be removed in coming weeks. A portion of the dam that will sit above the high water mark will remain.

The $39.3 million project replaces the dam with an already on-line electric pumping plant to deliver irrigation water to the Grants Pass Irrigation District.

The removal also marks the disappearance of the small lake created when stop-logs inserted on the dam’s top elevated the water to feed irrigation channels.

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