Removal of Rogue dam spells end of bitter battle

Removal of Rogue dam spells end of bitter battle

By Jeff Barnard
April 07, 2009


GRANTS PASS, Ore.—Within weeks, jackhammers will start knocking Savage Rapids Dam into rubble, and with it two decades of bitter battles over whether to keep what had become a crumbling symbol of a bygone era when rugged pioneers bent nature to their needs.

When irrigation season starts next month, 12 modern pumps will fill the canals serving 7,500 acres of the Grants Pass Irrigation District. By December, the northern half of the dam on the Rogue River will be gone, allowing salmon and steelhead to swim freely past the site for the first time since 1921.

After the lawsuits and arguments of the past, Grants Pass Irrigation District Manager Dan Shepard is ready to see the dam go.

“This digging in your feet like the Alamo makes good movies,” said Shepard, but in those movies, “a lot of people are dead.”

In the 88 years since Savage Rapids was built, the logging and mining that once sustained Southern Oregon have faded. Farms that the irrigation district once served have sprouted homes that tap the water for lawns and gardens. And the salmon and steelhead have struggled.

“They are giving up an aging infrastructure with high (operation and maintenance) costs for a relatively stable pumping facility,” said Bob Hamilton, who has overseen the project for the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation since 1988. “They will have an electric bill they never had (to run the pumps), but they will also have reliability they never had these many, many years.”

The battles started in 1988, when the conservation group WaterWatch, 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 district initially went along, knowing the federal government was likely to pick up the tab with powerful Sen. Mark Hatfield, R-Ore., in office, but later flip-flopped and fought to save the dam. Lawsuits were filed. Battles flared in the state Capitol. The Rogue’s coho salmon was 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.

Shepard recalls one of the valley’s major orchardists asking him why irrigators cared how they got water, as long as they got it.

The answer was a tough one, he said.

It has to do with people feeling powerless before their government, mindful of how spotted owl protection triggered a huge reduction in logging that took away the resource-based economy of the region.

“Nobody likes change,” Shepard said. “If you were a businessman—a farmer or rancher—when something comes up you can get all emotional about it for a short period of time. Then you have to back up and look at it from a business perspective.

“Since we didn’t have any full-time ranchers or farmers, it’s very easy for people to get emotional instead of dealing with reality.”

On Tuesday, workers for Slayden Construction of Stayton dumped truckloads of rocks and gravel into the river downstream of the dam and looked over the dry riverbed upstream as they started building a cofferdam that will hold back the water while backhoes and workers equipped with jackhammers start pounding the 88-year-old concrete structure into rubble.

The river flowed through the radial gates at the center of the dam.

For three weeks while the coffer dam is built, no straggling winter steelhead or early spring chinook will be able to climb the fish ladders to spawning grounds upstream.

When the project is finished this December, the northern half of the dam will be gone. The southern half that remains will no longer have the concrete pillars that held in place the needle logs that raised and lowered the dam for irrigation.

Winter storms will start washing downstream the 250,000 cubic yards of sand and gravel built up behind the dam.

Adult fish swimming upstream will no longer struggle with the poorly designed fish ladders. Young fish migrating downstream will no longer get shunted into irrigation ditches or a turbine to die.

Removing Savage Rapids comes on the heels of removing a diversion dam upstream at Gold Hill, and talk that Gold Ray Dam, also upstream, could be out by next year. That would open 157 miles of freeflowing river from Lost Creek Dam, the one dam that stores water and controls flooding on the Rogue, to the Pacific.

“We are seeing one of the nation’s largest river restoration projects,” said Bob Hunter of WaterWatch.

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