Making the river wild again

Making the river wild again

By Opinion
Mail Tribune
July 03, 2009

A federal grant will help remove Gold Ray Dam, but the clock is ticking

Jackson County leaders have a golden opportunity and a big challenge: Move quickly to take down Gold Ray Dam before the clock runs out on federal stimulus money awarded Tuesday to help pay for the project.

The county was awarded $5 million in stimulus funds, one of 50 coastal and marine habitat-restoration projects approved out of 814 proposals nationwide.

What the county must do next is something for which government is not often noted: move quickly.

The incentive to do so is enormous. Gold Ray Dam is one of two dams on the Rogue that impede river flow and hamper the ability of fish to travel upstream to spawn. The other, Savage Rapids Dam, is now in the process of being removed. If Gold Ray Dam also goes, the Rogue will flow unimpeded 150 miles from Lost Creek Dam to the ocean, boosting water quality and spawning access for steelhead and salmon, including endangered coho.

As county Roads and Parks Director John Vial notes, Gold Ray serves no purpose beyond creating a pool of still water. It generates no power, provides no flood control and diverts no irrigation water. The powerhouse that once generated electricity was decommissioned in 1972. What the dam does do is impede migrating fish.

So it makes sense to take out the dam. And now the federal government has agreed to help pay for the project.

But the money comes with a deadline. The dam removal was selected in part because Congress decreed that stimulus funds should be spent on “shovel-ready” projects that would create jobs and be finished in a year and a half. That means Gold Ray must be gone and the money spent by December 2010.

Standing between here and there are environmental studies to determine the quantity and contents of sediment behind the dam and the impact on the wetlands created by the pooling river. The sediment study is already in progress, and is scheduled to by completed this December.

It’s hard to imagine that the sediment behind Gold Ray Dam is any more dangerous than the sediment behind Savage Rapids, which is being taken down now. As for the wetlands, they didn’t exist before the dam was built, although they have been there since 1904. Still, a naturally flowing river creates its own wetlands, and has benefits no dam can match.

Vial notes that Jackson County commissioners have not officially signed off on removing the dam, and won’t until the environmental studies are complete. He’s confident the studies can be finished in six months, leaving enough time to remove the dam by the deadline.

This is the kind of situation in which government bureaucracy can be its own worst enemy. Everyone wants a careful study of the effects of removing the dam, but no one wants delays and red tape to prevent the work from being done on time.

The county’s job is to push everyone involved to complete the necessary tasks on schedule while making sure the bureaucracy doesn’t get in the way.

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