By Paul Fattig
April 14, 2013
Some 157 miles of the Rogue River flows freely again because of Bob Hunter.
Hunter, 60, of Eagle Point, who retired in 2011 as the senior staff attorney for WaterWatch of Oregon but remains on its board, led the group’s decades-long battle to remove Savage Rapids Dam in 2009 and Gold Ray Dam the following year. The two diversion dams on the Rogue had been in place for roughly a century.
Hunter spent 21 years struggling to convince the opposition of the benefits of removing Savage Rapids Dam, located a few miles upstream from Grants Pass.
“The Rogue River is a national treasure and one of the last remaining strongholds for salmon and steelhead in the Pacific Northwest,” he recently wrote in an email from Chile just before embarking on a kayak trip in South America.
“It is wonderful that the Rogue now runs freely for 157 miles and these old dams are no longer delaying, injuring or killing fish,” he added. “This amazing river restoration work will bring benefits now and to future generations. I am grateful to have had an opportunity to be a part of it.”
In an interview with the Mail Tribune shortly after Savage Rapids Dam was removed, Hunter reminisced about his work.
“I was 34 when I started on this — I didn’t have any gray hair then,” recalled the silver-haired conservationist. “I kept thinking we had something in place to start moving forward, then it would get derailed. It was kind of a seesaw.”
Hunter has always been quick to cite the work of countless others for their efforts in bringing about the removal of the dams.
An avid fisherman, the University of Michigan School of Law graduate joined Rogue Flyfishers when he arrived in the area some 35 years ago. The group works to improve the fisheries habitat in local streams.
“It was pretty common knowledge among people who fished on the Rogue that Savage Rapids Dam killed and harmed a lot of fish,” he said. “It was known as the biggest fish killer on the river.”
Scientists estimated the dam annually blocked nearly 60,000 salmon and steelhead from making the spawning migration upstream.
“What was lacking was any kind of legal hook to force people to look at how to solve the fish passage problem,” explained Hunter.
He had a private law practice in Medford for 20 years before joining WaterWatch of Oregon, a river protection and conservation nonprofit based in Portland, in 1998.
The legal hook came when the Grants Pass Irrigation District, which operated the dam, wanted to renew its permit for its water right. The problem was it had a permit to irrigate 18,000 acres but irrigated only 7,700 acres, thanks to encroaching urbanization in the district over the years.
In 1988, WaterWatch, Rogue FlyFishers and the American Fisheries Society, with Hunter serving as their attorney, filed a legal protest to stop GPID from diverting more water from the river. The protest resulted in negotiations that led to a temporary permit that kept the district operating. However, it was required to conduct a study on how to conserve water and solve the fish passage problem.
The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation added more pressure when it waded into the debate and determined the solution was removing the diversion dam and installing irrigation pumps. The agency had concluded that removal was cheaper than trying to fix the fish ladders and screens.
The district initially agreed to remove the dam, then balked at the solution after other board members were elected. In the mid-1990s, after former Senate President Brady Adams, a Republican from Grants Pass, announced his top priority was to save the dam, legislation was passed that gave the district the water it requested and saved the dam. But Gov. John Kitzhaber, a Democrat, vetoed the bill.
A compromise bill was passed that created a task force, delaying dam removal another for two years while yet another study was launched.
In 1997, coho salmon in the Rogue were listed as a threatened species under the federal Endangered Species Act, giving leverage to those wanting to remove the dam.
By 2001, the district, which spent more than $1 million on losing lawsuits to keep the dam, agreed once again to its removal. The nearly $40 million dam-removal cost was paid for by $3 million from the Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board, with the rest covered by Uncle Sam.
The district has been withdrawing water during its irrigation season from the river via pumps since 2008.
“Basically, for the last eight or nine years, we’ve been working closely with the district,” Hunter said. “Toward the end, people who used to think I was their enemy, we started talking on a regular basis.
“Over time, when they realized we weren’t trying to put the district out of business, that our goal was to find a solution that was good for the river and the district, they came around,” he concluded.
Hunter also led the debate over removing Gold Ray Dam, which was owned by Jackson County. The dam — originally built in 1904 at river mile 127.5 to provide hydro power — had not generated electricity since 1972.
The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife had ranked the dam as fifth in priority statewide for removal or fish passage improvement.
For his work in removing the dams, Hunter has received numerous awards, including the 2010 Leopold Conservation Award offered by the Federation of Fly Fishers.
And he received the “Rise to the Future” award from the U.S. Forest Service last April for his efforts to improve the Rogue River watershed and its rich fishery.
“It’s very exciting to receive an award for river restoration, but the work that was done involved a lot of people and a lot of organizations, a lot of support from agencies and affected parties,” he said.
With the removal of Savage Rapids and Gold Ray dams, the Rogue now flows freely from Lost Creek dam to the sea.