Savage Rapids Lesson: Removing Dams No Easy Task

Savage Rapids Lesson: Removing Dams No Easy Task

By Jessica Robinson
OPB News/Jefferson Public Radio
June 24, 2009

After two decades of conflict, crews are finally jackhammering the Savage Rapids Dam into oblivion.

The southern Oregon dam on the Rogue River doesn’t even produce electricity. Yet, removing it proved complicated and controversial.

Efforts to return other rivers to free-flowing channels are getting more attention across the Northwest and in Congress. But what happened with the Savage Rapids Dam gives some indication of how difficult it can be to rip out these engineering feats of the last century.

Jefferson Public Radio’s Jessica Robinson has this story.


Bob Hunter is the type of guy who usually prefers his river banks hushed, with nothing to discourage the steelhead pondering the fly at the end of his line.

But today, the sound of jackhammering is music to Hunter’s ears.

Bob Hunter: “Right now they have a piece of machinery that has basically a set of jaws on it and it looks like some sort of science fiction dinosaur reaching out and taking big bites out of the concrete of the dam.

Jessica Robinson: “You’ve been working on this for two decades. What do you think when you stand here and look out at this?

Bob Hunter: “Oh it’s really really exciting to see. There’s no going back. And I just get a really a great feeling.”

Hunter is an attorney for WaterWatch. The conservation group has long contended the century-old Savage Rapids Dam is a deadly gauntlet of shoddy fish ladders, exposed turbines, and steep drops for migrating salmon and steelhead.

Even the federal government called Savage Rapids the “biggest fish killer on the Rogue River.” So, Hunter figured removal would be a no-brainer: Here was non-power producing irrigation dam that could be replaced by a more efficient pumping system.

Instead, it’s taken countless hearings, government studies, and a stack of legal documents taller than Hunter to finally see the dam dismantled.

Bob Hunter: “One thing we’ve learned with dam removal is it’s not a quick process. Don’t expect it to take a couple of years.”

At issue was the fact that Savage Rapids Dam diverted water to about 8000 landowners in what’s known as the Grants Pass Irrigation District. The dam had been diverting water since 1921.

It also created a reservoir that held fond waterskiing memories for many locals. So, proponents of dam removal were up against two powerful forces: local history and a feeling of “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

Dan Shepard: “People, you know, I think it’s human nature that you don’t volunteer for change.”

Grants Pass Irrigation District manager Dan Shepard says when environmentalists first started pushing for dam removal, it smacked of the sort of meddling people here felt was destroying the timber industry.

Dan Shepard: “You know it goes back to the woods and the owl, like ‘Who come up with that idea’?”

But today, Shepard believes the district made the right decision when it agreed to take out the dam.

It faced expensive maintenance problems. Plus, Congress came through with money for a new pumping station. He says the mounting attorney’s fees and the district’s continual losses in court helped sway public opinion.

And the landscape itself also changed. Backyards and putting greens have replaced many of the old farms the dam was originally built to irrigate.

Dan Shepard: “So it’s like everything – the district started out being a certain way in 1922. I don’t think any business or anything stays the same. There’s people saying I grew up swimming up there wasn’t that neat – well of course it was neat. But it doesn’t have anything to do with 2009.”

Dan Shepard isn’t the only one caught in the changing currents of dam politics. Across the Northwest, removal projects are moving forward.

In Washington, dams on the Elwha and White Salmon rivers are slated for demolition within the next few years. A tentative agreement could lead to the removal of four hydropower dams on the Klamath River in Northern California. And in May, Idaho Senator Mike Crapo — a Republican — raised eyebrows by suggesting that breaching Snake River dams should be on the table.

Boise State University political science professor John Freemuth says efforts to take out dams still face an uphill battle — and hydro-electric dams? Nearly impossible.

But he notes that advocates for free-flowing rivers have managed to change the discussion.

John Freemuth: “What’s happened is it’s very, very difficult now to talk about building a new dam. You know 30 years ago, the politics was still on the side of construction and building new dams, and now yeah you’re starting to see it tipping towards dams that were constructed that you can now see being removed, which 50 years ago would have been unheard of.”

Back in Southern Oregon, Bob Hunter digs through a mass of flyfishing equipment in his basement. The steelhead on the Rogue are known to readily take a fly. He can’t wait to do some angling at the former site of Savage Rapids Dam.

The last of the rubble is cleared away in December.

Bob Hunter: “Sound you like to hear — the fish making a long run and pulling out line.”

And the sore feelings in Grants Pass?  Hunter says it won’t take long till the controversy’s forgotten.

Bob Hunter: “I really think looking five years out people are going to think, ‘Why didn’t we do this a long time ago?’”

As for the Rogue River – past dam removal projects in the Northwest suggest the river’s scars will be erased even sooner.

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