Dam breaching celebrated on famed Rogue River

Dam breaching celebrated on famed Rogue River

By Jeff Barnard
Daily Courier/AP
October 10, 2009

ROGUE RIVER, Ore. (AP) — The wild and scenic Rogue River has become even wilder with the demolition of a dam that had hindered passage of salmon and steelhead to their spawning grounds for 88 years.

A flotilla of some 80 people in rafts, driftboats and kayaks celebrated the breaching of the Savage Rapids Dam on Saturday by floating through the remains of the concrete structure in southwest Oregon.

Among them was Jim Martin, rowing his own driftboat. His first job as a young fisheries biologist for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife was monitoring how many salmon and steelhead were killed each year by the irrigation dam.

“Forty-one years ago I stood on that dam as a young biologist fresh out of school watching the fish die, and thinking how this dam had to come out for the health of this river,” said Martin, who rose to be chief of fisheries for the department and now is conservation director of Pure Fishing. “People said, `Jim, be realistic, it will never happen.’ And it’s happening.”

Since the dam was completed in 1921, the logging and mining that once sustained Southern Oregon have faded. Farms that the Grants Pass Irrigation District once served have sprouted homes that tap the water for lawns and gardens. And the salmon and steelhead have struggled, with an estimated 58,000 adult salmon and steelhead blocked from spawning grounds each year.

The battles to restore the waterway started in 1988, when the conservation group WaterWatch, which organized the celebration, Rogue Fly Fishers and the American Fisheries Society filed a protest to stop the irrigation district from drawing more water from the Rogue.

The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation took a look and decided the cheapest and best solution to provide water efficiently without harming fish was to remove the dam and replace it with pumps.

The irrigation district initially went along, but later flip-flopped and fought to save the dam. Lawsuits were filed. Battles flared in the state Capitol. The Rogue’s coho salmon were declared a threatened species, and more lawsuits were filed.

By 2001, after losing every lawsuit and spending more than $1 million on legal fees, the district agreed to remove the dam. The next year the Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board pledged $3 million, and a year later Congress started approving funding that would eventually cover the rest of the $39.3 million cost.

“One reason this project took so long is people had to adjust their notions of what progress was,” said John DeVoe of Portland, executive director of WaterWatch. “There was a lot of opposition to removing the dam because it was viewed as a symbol of progress.”

The good feelings were marred by the death of a local man running a jetboat through the remains of the dam on Friday, who hit a rock downstream and flipped. Three others in the boat survived.

The Rogue, one of the original rivers to get federal wild and scenic protection in 1968, has given up its steelhead to such names as Western writer Zane Grey and movie star Ginger Rogers. This section is miles above the wild section of the Rogue, where people come from around the world to float the whitewater, camp and fish. Here the river is hemmed in on all sides by houses – some with docks no longer reaching the water – Interstate 5 and U.S. Highway 97.

That didn’t stop Roger Funk, a carpenter from Talent, from joining the celebration. He recalled sitting on the banks of the river as a child and watching for hours as the salmon moved upstream. But over the years, the numbers of fish steadily dwindled. He joined the flotilla with his 15-year-old son, and a neighbor, nursing student Maddy Morse.

“I have been rafting the Rogue for 35 years,” Funk said. “Taking the dam down to have a freeflowing river is exhilarating.”

Another old diversion dam, Gold Ray near the city of Gold Hill, is likely to join Savage Rapids soon. The NOAA has offered federal stimulus money to help with the cost. Another small diversion dam at Gold Hill has already come out. And a half-built dam on major tributary, Elk Creek, has been notched.

“This is the greatest number of significant dam removals in the country,” said WaterWatch spokesman Jim McCarthy.

It wasn’t always so.

Martin recalls seeing adult spring chinook salmon throwing themselves against the dam because they couldn’t find the poorly designed fish ladders, and those that did jumping out of the ladders and dying on the rocks.

The more insidious harm from Savage Rapids and other dams on the river was caused by slowing the river in reservoirs, allowing the sun to raise average temperatures 1 degree, to the point that fish die from warm water many years.

“Those things aren’t a big deal when the river is plenty cold,” Martin said. “But when the river is starting to get marginally too warm as it is with more development and climate change, those things can be crucial.”

Construction crews built a coffer dam and started jackhammering half of the dam to pieces last April, and on Friday removed the piles of rock and gravel holding the river back, allowing the river to flow freely. The rest of the dam is to be removed by December.

The river quickly cut down through the huge accumulation of sand, gravel and rocks that had built up behind the dam the past 88 years.

“What this really represents today is our culture being capable of backing up a little bit and doing something differently,” Martin said as he pushed off from the bank and rowed his driftboat down the newly freed section of river.

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