Free at last: With dam breached, Rogue flows freely for first time in nearly a century
By Friday just after lunch, the Rogue River was busy scouring a new channel through sediment piled upstream from the former Savage Rapids Dam, signalling the end of a long fight over the 88-year-old dam.
At least one drift boater was perched upstream from the channel, hoping to be the first person in nearly a century to pass through this spot in the Rogue River. Savage Rapids Dam was finished in 1921.
About 100 people plan to float through the former dam site Saturday morning, if navigation was judged to be safe, said Bob Hunter, an attorney for WaterWatch. It was Hunter who instigated lawsuits against the Grants Pass Irrigation District 20-some years ago over poor passage for salmon and steelhead.
On Friday, Hunter stood on a pipe bridge downstream from the dam, with about 25 other members of the media, employees of GPID, the Bureau of Reclamation, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, and Slayden Construction as the Rogue was rerouted to the north side, finally independent of the former dam.
“We never dreamed it would take more than 20 years, but we’re just happy it’s happening,” Hunter said. “Today is a great day for the Rogue River and its fishery.”
Slayden Construction has already knocked out three more sections, and what is left at the dam site will remain, including radial gates to be plugged with cement. Work on the $40 million project should be done in November. Slayden still has to remove cement and steel posts from the top of what’s left of the dam, along with the south fish ladder.
GPID, which consented to dam removal in 2001 under pressure of lawsuits, started using new pumps last spring.
On Friday morning the Rogue streamed through the remnants of the dam on the south side, but radial gates were slowly closed to raise the level, and a 400-yard-long pilot channel to the north breached at the bottom. It started as a trickle around 9:30 a.m., but by late morning the top end was breached and the north channel was moving dirt and rock.
“I saw one rock probably six feet long and four feet wide rolling through there,” said GPID Manager Dan Shepard.
The turbidity just before noon was a muddy 200 nephelometric turbidity units just below the dam, said Jason Canady, manager for the city’s water filtration plant in Grants Pass. Prior to the breaching the water was a gin-clear 3 NTUs. The water had muddied up to 22 NTUs by Saturday morning.
The plant was temporarily shut down Friday morning, Canady said. The plant has handled sediment loads of up to 800 NTUs in the past, but did not know what to expect on Friday.
“I can count on one hand the times we’ve done this in 14 years,” Canady said. “We were planning for the worst. We topped off all of our reservoirs this morning.”
Slayden finished removing the north end of the dam in early summer, but could not begin final demolition until the end of irrigation season because sediment could have harmed GPID’s new pumps.
The rush of muddy water coincides with one of the most popular fishing months of the year on the Rogue River, but dam removal advocate Dave Strahan believes the river should clear quickly because of the low flows of October.
“There’s no doubt there’s going to be an impact, but the question is, to what extent and how long,” Strahan said.
Bureau of Reclamation modeling predicts that much of the 200,000 cubic yards of sediment upstream from the dam will not flush out until higher-volume winter flows.