Savage Rapids return to Rogue
Crews breach dam; boats go through channel for the first time in 88 years
Savage Rapids Dam became Savage Rapids on Friday for the first time in 88 years when excavators and bulldozers restored the Rogue River to its historic channel through a demolished part of the half-gone dam.
A steady stream of rubberneckers watched history unfold as excavators breached an earthen dam and sent the Rogue roiling through a temporary “pilot” channel dug where the concrete dam’s north side has spanned the Rogue near the town of Rogue River since 1921.
From a bird’s-eye perch atop an irrigation catwalk spanning the river just downstream, the man whom wild-salmon advocates credit with shepherding the removal of one of Oregon’s worst fish-killing dams stood in awe.
WaterWatch attorney Bob Hunter, who has spent most of three decades first convincing — and then assisting — the Grants Pass Irrigation District to replace the aged dam with electrical pumps, choked up as the turbid water started trickling, and then gushing, unimpeded through the old rapid.
“It’s pretty darn thrilling,” said Hunter, of Eagle Point. “It’s really a tremendous sight to see.
“We’re finally here. After 88 years, the Rogue River is finally running free.”
The Rogue began its free-flow through its historic channel at 11:40 a.m. when a bulldozer completed a berm that blocked flow to what remains of the dam’s south side.
Carolyn Arguijo sat on a bank-side rock quietly watching her world change, too.
Arguijo owns the Restful Nest on the Rogue, a bed-and-breakfast overlooking what once was the summer reservoir that backed up behind the dam during GPID’s irrigation season.
She and other businesses along “Savage Lake” catered to the waterskiers who for decades flocked here to enjoy the only lake-like water of its kind around Grants Pass and Rogue River.
The lake is gone now, and it won’t ever be back as the Rogue returns to a series of rapids and pools through the 31/2-mile stretch from Rogue River to the dam site.
“I’ve enjoyed the lake and to see it go is sad,” Arguijo said. “But at the same time, I’ll enjoy this turning into a good rafting river again.”
Arguijo hopes breaching the dam will bring a new source of money — and happiness — for this stretch of the river, which has been largely ignored by rafters since World War I.
“I miss the happy sounds of waterskiers,” she said. “Maybe they’ll be replaced by the happy sounds of rafters.”
One thing’s for sure, she said. Today’s event represents major change for this part of the Rogue.
“I’m going to have to redo my Web site,” Arguijo said. “The pictures of the river don’t look the same anymore.”
GPID Manager Dan Shepard stood on the catwalk and watched the reconstituted channel gurgle with activity.
Shepard began his GPID career as a board member in the early 1990s and initially was opposed to the dam’s removal. He later became an advocate for the $39.3 million switch to electric pumps and a demolished dam as the best way for GPID to survive.
“To tell you the truth, it’s a little anti-climactic,” Shepard said. “It went from, ‘It’s really going to happen’ to ‘What are you gonna do tomorrow? Just regular irrigation stuff.’ ”
The contractor, Slayden Construction Group, took control over the site and the altered flows, leaving Shepard and his GPID crew to watch.
“We were able to be spectators,” he said. “Just sit there, let it happen and go, wow.”
And there was plenty to wow about.
As the water cut through the sand and gravel amassed for decades behind the dam, it exposed large boulders that were thrown downstream by the force of the Rogue.
“It was constantly changing,” Shepard said. “There were rocks six feet long and three or four feet in diameter washing out and rolling around and then it would stop. Then another rock would wash out and hit that one. Amazing.”
Meanwhile, John Smets launched his jetboat at Pierce Riffle expecting to be the first powerboater to run upstream through the new Savage Rapids. He came down Friday from Canby just to be first.
While parked downstream waiting for a friend, another boat roared by and beat Smets to it. Smets followed behind.
“It was a fun rapid, and I guess it’s OK to be second,” Smets said.
Shortly after Smets’ successful run, a powerboat that ran the rapid three times hit a rock and crashed, tossing the unidentified driver into the river, Shepard said. Paramedics were called and the man was attended to on a nearby gravel bar, he said. No more information was immediately available.
While the Rogue worked to establish its own identity through the long, steep chute, Mick Jennings worked in the dewatered channel with a heavy case of deja vu.
A retired Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife biologist, he was contracted Friday by Slayden to salvage any stranded salmon or steelhead from the old channel.
When he worked for the ODFW as far back as 1966, Jennings routinely checked the dam’s much-maligned fish ladder to ensure it was passing fish properly.
“Us fish guys had to go down every day,” Jennings said. “There was always something to tinker with. Adjusting flows, seeing if fish jumped out of the ladder.”
Jennings was one of the ODFW leadership in the late 1980s and early ’90s who pushed for removing the dam and its antiquated fish ladder and fish screens across canal openings that regularly killed infant salmon.
He retired from the agency in 1994, never expecting to take part in one last fish salvage here.
“Never thought it would (occur) in my lifetime,” said Jennings, 67, of Grants Pass. “I had to come do this, just to see the project through.”