Rogue River Runs Free at Savage Rapids


Rogue River Runs Free at Savage Rapids
Storied Salmon Stream Undergoes Historic Restoration

October 8, 2009

Bob Hunter, WaterWatch Staff Attorney, 541-778-3310
John DeVoe, WaterWatch Executive Director, 971-322-5635

Tomorrow, the Rogue River will move freely for the first time in nearly a century on a stretch of river near Grants Pass, Oregon, when work crews pull down a temporary coffer dam in place around the demolished north side of Savage Rapids Dam. Once the river flushes any remaining sediment from the channel, fish and boats will be able to move unimpeded through the site. The historic event marked another achievement in the ongoing restoration of the Rogue River, the location of the most substantial dam removal efforts yet undertaken in the western U.S. Workmen are slated to finish the last portions of the Savage Rapids Dam removal by December.

“This is a day of celebration for the many people who have worked long and hard to remove this dam and restore the Rogue River,” said WaterWatch staff attorney Bob Hunter. “I can’t wait to run the new stretch in my drift boat, and check out the new fishing spots.”

The $40 million Savage Rapids project represents one of the largest dam removals ever in the United States and is expected to increase Rogue River salmon runs above the dam site by over 22%, valued at $5 million annually, bringing enduring positive impacts to the valuable sport and commercial salmon fisheries of Oregon.

WaterWatch and over 180 Rogue Valley residents and guests will celebrate the historic event on October 10th, with an inaugural float-through of the site by boat (provided there is safe passage), tour of the dam, and gala dinner. For more information on how to join in the festivities, please visit

This week’s celebration comes during a sustained wave of restoration achievements on the Rogue River. Calendar year 2008 saw the removal of the Gold Hill Diversion Dam on the Rogue’s mainstem, and the notching of Elk Creek Dam, an important spawning tributary of the Rogue. In June 2009, Jackson County received a $5 million stimulus grant from the Obama administration to remove Gold Ray Dam, the removal of which will achieve 157 miles of free flowing Rogue River. WaterWatch has played a key role in making a free-flowing and protected Rogue a reality.

“We’re witnessing one of the most significant river restorations projects in the nation, and we expect it will bring long-term benefits to the region through improved salmon runs, increased economic activity, and better quality of life,” said WaterWatch Executive Director John DeVoe.


Savage Rapids Dam, a 39-foot high, 464-foot long irrigation diversion dam that spanned the mainstem of the Rogue River five miles east of Grants Pass, Oregon, had long been considered the biggest fish killer on the Rogue. The dam did not provide any flood control, storage, navigation, or hydropower function. WaterWatch and its conservation partners spent decades advocating for the dam’s removal. The dam’s owner, Grants Pass Irrigation District (GPID), reached a landmark agreement with WaterWatch and other parties in 2001 that paved the way for the dam to be removed and be replaced by more efficient, fish-friendly pumps.

Crews completed construction of the temporary cofferdam structure at the site during the spring. The cofferdam created a dry space for work, allowing demolition of the north two-thirds of the 88-year-old Savage Rapids Dam over the course of the summer.

The Rogue River in southwestern Oregon is one of the nation’s outstanding rivers and the second largest producer of salmon in Oregon outside of the Columbia Basin. Because of its scenic beauty, world-class whitewater, and internationally renowned salmon and steelhead fishery, it was one of the original group of rivers designated as “wild and scenic” with the passage of the federal Wild and Scenic Rivers Act in 1968. The Bureau of Land Management estimates that some 25,000 visitors use the Rogue River each year.

For years, the dam impeded passage of significant portions of five runs of salmon and steelhead, including coho salmon listed as threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act. Government scientists have estimated that removal of the dam would increase the number of fish produced in the Rogue River above the dam site by 22%. The corresponding increase in salmon and steelhead that would then be available for sport and commercial harvest is valued at approximately $5,000,000 annually.

In 2002, the Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board (OWEB) pledged $3 million toward the project. With strong bipartisan support from Oregon’s Congressional delegation, federal legislation passed the next year, authorizing the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation to install pumps for GPID and remove the dam.

The Bureau of Reclamation awarded the contract to install the pumps and remove the dam to Slayden Construction Group of Stayton, Oregon on August 9, 2006.  GPID’s new replacement pumping facilities are complete and were used successfully during the 2009 irrigation season.  The $36.5 million pumping facility began delivering irrigation water to GPID patrons in early May.

Project participants in the Savage Rapids Dam removal project include the Grants Pass Irrigation District, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board, WaterWatch, National Marine Fisheries Service, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, and Oregon Water Resources Department.

Dam Removal Timeline

April 7: Cofferdam construction started around north part of dam
Mid-April: First wet test of new irrigation pumps
Early May: Irrigation began with new pumps
June-September: Demolition of north part of dam
October 9: Removal of north-side cofferdam
October: Begin second cofferdam around south part of dam
November-December: Complete dam demolition