Another Dam Bites the Dust

Another Dam Bites the Dust

By Dennis Newman
Natural Oregon
April 02, 2009

 

Derided by environmentalists as a “fish killer”, next week marks the beginning of the end for Savage Rapids Dam on the Rogue River near Grants Pass. After it’s gone, almost 126 miles of the Rogue will be free flowing.

It starts Tuesday with the construction of coffer dams, temporary structures that will give workers a dry place to do their jobs. That’s expected to take several weeks.

Then the main event begins. Workers will spend the next several months chipping away at the dam, removing enough of it so that the Rogue returns to its natural flow and the steelhead and salmon can swim easily through the gap. That work should be wrapped up by the fall.

The total cost is about $40 million, with $3 million coming from the Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board which helped keep the removal plans on track.

The benefits for fish could be enormous. A 1995 study by the Bureau of Reclamation concluded that if the dam was removed, the numbers of salmon and steelhead would increase by 22%, or 114,000 more fish with an economic boost of $5 million to the fishing industry. The Rogue River is the second largest producer of salmon in the state.

But people will benefit too. The Rogue is popular with tourists who come to enjoy the scenery, the whitewater and fishing. 84 miles of the Rogue have been designated a Wild and Scenic River. The Bureau of Land Management estimates 25,000 people visit annually. The removal of the dam opens up another 18 miles of free flowing river for people to enjoy too.

It’s taken decades to get here. A series of court battles over the dam began in 1988 when Water Watch of Oregon sued over how much water was being diverted from the river. The dam was built in 1921 by the Grants Pass Irrigation District.

After the coffer dams are up, one of the next steps will also be to install fish friendly pumps that will supply water for farmers who need it for irrigation.

What’s next for the Rogue? Bob Hunter of Water Watch says another dam on the river will be demolished in the next few years. The Gold Ray dam, owned by Jackson County, is considered one of Oregon’s top 10 impediments to wild salmon and steelhead. The dam was originally built for hydropower but it hasn’t been operated for almost four decades. Jackson County is seeking $5 million in stimulus money to speed up the timetable so removal can begin in 2010, that’s about two years ahead of the current schedule.

And when that happens, Hunter says the Rogue will be free flowing for almost 160 miles.

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