Flip-flopped dam-removal plans on Evans Creek could start next week

Flip-flopped dam-removal plans on Evans Creek could start next week
By Mark Freeman
Mail Tribune

July 6, 2015

WIMER — Construction crews next week plan to move into the Evans Creek drainage in preparation for removing the two worst remaining fish-killers in the Rogue River Basin, but they will show up already working under Plan B.

A pending permit appeal blocking the demolition of Fielder Dam means crews will first start to dismantle Wimer Dam as part of the $688,900 project to open more than 70 miles of spawning grounds in the upper Evans Creek drainage for wild salmon and steelhead.

Original plans called for first removing Fielder that is lower in the system than Wimer. But groups seeking removal of the two abandoned concrete diversions won’t know until later this month the decision on an administrative appeal of a Jackson County permit filed by a landowner adjacent to that structure.

No such appeal was raised for the county permit for Wimer Dam. So that project could begin after a final U.S. Army Corps of Engineers permit is secured as expected by the end of this week.

“So we’re sort of at Plan B, just planning to change the sequence,” said attorney Bob Hunter from WaterWatch of Oregon, which joins the Ashland-based Geos Institute in spearheading the demolitions to improve fish passage. “It’s the fall-back plan.”

Largely because of ineffective fish ladders, Fielder and Wimer dams are listed by the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife as among the top 10 fish-passage impediments in Oregon.

Brian Barr, the project manager contracted by the Geos Institute for this project, said organizers originally wanted to work their way upstream by starting at Fielder to ensure crews were out of the lower creek well before any early-run fall chinook salmon reach the site, about three miles from the creek’s confluence with the Rogue River within the city of Rogue River.

But having Staton Co. crews arrive there, perhaps in early August, still should not interfere with migrating chinook that likely won’t make it far up Evans Creek due to low-flow conditions, Barr said.

The in-stream work at Wimer Dam, which was slated to begin July 20, likely will be done by the end of July, Barr said. Wimer Dam is six miles farther upstream than Fielder.

Staton has separate contracts totaling $400,000 for the two dam removals. The remaining costs were design, planning and permitting.

The three largest grants to the project to date are nearly $463,000 of Oregon Lottery money through the Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board, $215,125 from the U.S. Department of the Interior and $58,202 from the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife’s Restoration & Enhancement Program that disperses surcharges on angling licenses and commercial fishing fees.

Currently holding up the Wimer work is a Floodplain Development Permit issued by Jackson County but appealed by landowner Rod Crume. Crume did not return telephone calls seeking comment.

If Jackson County Hearings Officer Donald Rubenstein rules against Crume and the permit is issued by the end of July, Barr said crews should have plenty of time to extract Fielder Dam before the Sept. 15 deadline for work inside salmon streams such as Evans Creek.

Crume could appeal a loss to the state Land Use Board of Appeals, which would push planned demolition outside of that Sept. 15 in-stream deadline.

“It would be nice to get these both out in the same year,” Barr said. “Our funding is good for two years, so if we have to go over to the summer of 2016, we can do that.”

Fielder Dam’s location and design regularly keeps wild salmon from venturing past its base. Wild fish that get past it must then deal with Wimer Dam before reaching prime spawning habitat rarely reached because of these impediments, state biologists say.

Removing the dams would create regular access to 16 miles of spawning habitat for wild fall chinook, 60 miles of spawning habitat for wild coho and more than 70 miles of wild steelhead spawning grounds, according to feasibility studies.

State and federal agencies have identified restoration of access to high-quality fish habitat in the upper reaches of the Evans Creek Basin as important to the recovery of wild coho, which are listed as threatened throughout Southern Oregon and Northern California — including in the Rogue.

The two irrigation diversion dams were abandoned in the 1970s, and no active water rights are associated with them or the small reservoirs they impound.

Fielder Dam stands 19 feet tall, and its poor fish ladder begins with a 2-foot drop that often blocks passage in low-flow periods.

At 11 feet tall, Wimer Dam is smaller, but its fish ladder is even worse than Fielder’s. Both ladders face away from the creek’s regular flow over their tops, making the ladders difficult for fish to find, according to the ODFW.