Removing dam was 21-year upriver fight for WaterWatch lawyer
Bob Hunter acknowledges it may be time to remove the bumper sticker on the bow of his well-used driftboat.
“Take Out Savage Rapids Dam,” it reads.
Hunter, 55, of Eagle Point, is still getting used to the fact the dam is gone, having been breached Friday.
After all, he spent 21 years of his life in the contentious fight to remove the old diversion dam on the Rogue River a few miles upstream from Grants Pass.
“I was 34 when I started on this — I didn’t have any gray hair then,” said the WaterWatch attorney, whose hair has grown gray and a bit sparse.
Although he is quick to cite the work of countless others for their help in bringing about the end of the dam, he allows that his participation in the effort could have sprouted a few gray hairs.
“I kept thinking we had something in place to start moving forward, then it would get derailed,” he said as he floated the river Saturday with nearly 100 other people. “It was kind of a seesaw.”
Indeed, the legal battle took more twists and turns than the channel winding its way through Savage Rapids.
An avid fisherman, he joined Rogue Flyfishers when he arrived in the area in 1978. 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. Removal of the dam is projected to increase Rogue salmon runs by more than 22 percent.
“What was lacking was any kind of legal hook to force people to look at how to solve the fish passage problem,” he recalled.
Enter Tom Simmons, the founder of WaterWatch. When the Grants Pass Irrigation District, which operated the dam, wanted to renew its permit for its water right, the late Simmons knew the district would face problems because it had a permit to irrigate 18,000 acres but only irrigated 7,700 acres.
The battle began in earnest in 1988 when WaterWatch, Rogue Fly Fishers 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.
“It took two years, but we negotiated a temporary permit to keep them going on the condition they do a study on how to conserve water and how to solve the fish passage study,” he said.
After a few more years drifted past, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation stepped in and determined the solution was removing the diversion dam and installing irrigation pumps, noting it was cheaper than trying to fix the fish ladders and screens.
What followed was a series of political and legal battles, with the district first agreeing to remove the dam, then balking at the solution after other board members were elected. In 1995, after the district came out against the dam’s removal, then-state Senate President Brady Adams, a Republican from Grants Pass, announced his top priority was to save the dam.
Legislation was passed which gave the district the water it requested and saved the dam but was vetoed by Gov. John Kitzhaber, a Democrat.
A compromise bill was then passed which created a task force, delaying dam removal for two years while yet another study was conducted.
In 1997, the 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.
“That meant a Water Resource Commission order saying you (GPID) had to exercise due diligence to remove the dam came into effect,” Hunter observed.
By 2001, the district, which spent more than $1 million on losing lawsuits to keep the dam, agreed to its removal. The nearly $40 million dam removal price tag was paid for by $3 million from the Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board, with the rest covered by Congress.
In 2006, the bureau issued a contract to remove the dam and install the pumps. The pumps began working this past irrigation season.
“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 added.
Although the battle waged over Savage Rapids Dam is over, the effort to continue improving the local fishery continues, Hunter said.
“I’d like to help shepherd Gold Ray Dam through,” he said of the Rogue dam near Gold Hill slated for removal next year. “There is a lot of work left to do on it.”
Jackson County earlier this year received some $5 million in federal stimulus money to remove the dam, which will make the Rogue a free-flowing river for nearly 160 miles from Trail to Gold Beach.
“I hope when Gold Ray is out of there to make that 157-mile float all the way down the free-flowing Rogue to ocean,” Hunter said.