Salmon runs on Rogue expected to revive once dams come down
One of Oregon’s storied rivers is on the cusp of a major makeover. What’s happening on the Rogue River isn’t so much transformation as reversion.
Dams built during the previous century will come down. Reservoirs will return to running water.
And soon, for the first time in more than 100 years, the Rogue could flow unimpeded for 157 miles from the Cascade foothills to the Pacific. Four dam modification projects are in different stages, three on the main stem and a fourth along Elk Creek, a major tributary.
Dam decommissioning on the Rogue, the largest salmon-producing river in Oregon outside of the Columbia River system, is part of an accelerating trend of removing or altering aging and environmentally harmful dams across the Northwest and the United States.
The most recent tally by the conservation group American Rivers estimates about 273 dams were removed between 1999 and 2006. Last summer, Marmot Dam on the Sandy River was taken out, the largest removal in Oregon history. This summer the Chiloquin Dam on the Klamath Basin’s Sprague River is set to come out. Plans are under way to remove other dams on the White Salmon and Elwha rivers in Washington.
On the Rogue, the most costly and high-profile project is the removal of the 87-year-old Savage Rapids Dam east of Grants Pass and just upstream from the historic Weasku Inn, a favorite fishing getaway for Clark Gable.
The fate of the 456-foot-long, 39-foot-high dam was debated for a decade before irrigators, government agencies and conservationists agreed in 2001 to remove it so long as pumps could be built to divert water from the river for hay and pasture plots served by the Grants Pass Irrigation District.
“This is one of those deals where everyone comes out OK,” irrigation district manager Dan Shepard said recently while overlooking the dam as it held back the Rogue for one final summer.
The dam’s fish ladders, as well as some fish screens, no longer meet federal standards. The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation thinks removing the dam will increase the number of salmon reaching spawning grounds by 22 percent a year, an increase of about 114,000 fish.
Shepard’s district will save on maintenance costs for the aging dam that he said is “nickel and diming us to death.” Last week, for instance, he had to spend $1,500 to replace a gear box on a 50-year-old fish screen.
Next year the new twin pumps will go online, supplying about 150 cubic feet per second of water to roughly 11,000 customers, and the north side of the dam will come down. After that, an estimated 200,000 cubic yards of sediment that has accumulated behind the dam will start to wash downstream.
The $39 million project is being paid for with mostly federal funds and $3 million from the Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board.
Just upstream, the same contractors are setting up near the Gold Hill Dam, which, after the Savage Rapids, is considered the biggest obstacle to salmon and steelhead on the Rogue.
This month the state enacted emergency restrictions against fishing for spring chinook salmon in the lower Rogue because the run is less than a quarter of the recent 10-year average. The 2006 and 2007 runs were the second- and third-lowest runs respectively since 1942.
The city of Gold Hill used the 60-year-old dam to divert water until building new intake facilities in 2006. The $1 million removal project should be completed by next spring.
A bit upstream is Gold Ray Dam, a defunct power-producing dam now owned by Jackson County. The county received a $100,000 grant this year to complete a study of the sediments collected behind the century-old dam, which will be followed by a removal feasibility study.
“And depending on the result we’ll go in there and start dam removal,” said Lin Bernhardt, the county’s natural resources manager.
Further still up the Rogue and 1.5 miles up Elk Creek, the Army Corps of Engineers is planning to cut a notch in the Elk Creek Dam. Construction of that dam began in 1971, but it was stopped by a lawsuit in 1987 when the dam was only a third of its height. The creek is considered a crucial salmon spawning area for the Rogue.
The corps’ plan is to return the creek to its old gradient and alignment to help migrating coho salmon while leaving much of the dam intact should construction resume sometime in the future. The notching should be done by the fall.
When and if the three main-stem dams are removed, the result will be that a boater could paddle flat and white-water uninterrupted from the Lost Creek Dam through Shady Cove, Grants Pass, the wild and scenic lower river and into the tidewater at Gold Beach.
Fish heading up and downstream will also have a less perilous journey to make, all of which is good news to Bob Hunter, a Rogue Valley fly fisherman and attorney for the river conservation group Waterwatch of Oregon, which has been fighting for dam removal for two decades.
“It’s really great for the Rogue River,” he said. “In a few years from now people are going to wonder what all the controversy was about.”