Tear it out?: Study will determine the future of Gold Ray Dam, which officials say is no longer practical
The 35-foot-tall concrete wall that spans the Rogue River makes Gold Ray Dam a large form with very little function.
The turbines that first sent electricity to Medford in 1904 stopped spinning decades ago, yet the altered river habitat remains.
The upstream wetlands are still favorites for bird-watchers and canoers, while the water that pours over its top has become a newly discovered haven for kayakers surfing in the sudsy froth.
And in between sits a fish ladder with a glass-walled chamber used to count migrating salmon and steelhead as they pass by.
“I’ve always been impressed with how popular that place is,” says Russ Stauff, the Rogue Watershed manager for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. “That stretch of river comes up in casual conversations with people all the time.”
These little constituencies have helped the dam sidestep decades of scrutiny that already has toppled other, smaller structures in the Rogue Basin and throughout the West.
“It’s kind of flown under the radar screen,” says Paul Korbulic, parks, roads and planning director for Jackson County, which owns the dam. “But it’s kind of floated to the top as an issue.”
County officials are beginning to float ideas about how the dam and its immediate surroundings should appear and function in the future, with even the possibility of breaching or removing the dam considered options.
A private consultant this summer will begin putting together some initial surveys and studies that eventually will help determine what the dam’s future should be, what the impacts of any changes could entail and how much money it will cost to get there.
In what county officials are calling the “pre-feasibility” stage, consultant Steve Mason will begin accumulating what little is known about the upstream wetlands, the varying winners and losers of the dam’s presence and the range of issues that would be addressed before flushing out the best route for the county to pursue.
Other issues to be addressed include any expected improvements to fish passage and habitat, particularly for threatened coho salmon. Computer models could help determine how a dam-less river would meander in what is now a slack-water impoundment.
Even estimates on what recreational benefits or debits would occur there also will be considered.
With roughly $30,000 available, Mason’s initial work will focus on defining the issues as best he can for now.
“We’re trying to figure out what the scale of this project is so we can do a feasibility study,” Mason says. “That eventually will give you a solution, a preferred alternative, for what to do.”
Future studies could look at everything from removing the dam to notching it to buttressing its tired walls or lowering its profile and beefing up its fish ladder.
Virtually every conceivable alternative now is a possibility, except retrofitting the dam to generate power like it did more than a century ago. State law bans new water rights for hydroelectric power generation on the Rogue.
The first small steps should come later this summer when Mason’s firm, HDR Engineering, will test the sediment built up behind the dam for mercury and other contaminants that could be unwanted remnants of the upper Rogue’s mining and agricultural histories.
“That really drives what happens next,” Korbulic says. “If it’s highly contaminated, one of the alternatives could be to leave it in place.”
With the possibility that two downstream dams — the Gold Hill diversion dam and Savage Rapids Dam near the city of Rogue River — could both be out of the Rogue as early as next year, Gold Ray Dam has become the single largest artificial fish-passage barrier in the Rogue Basin and one of the top 10 most important artificial obstructions to salmon and steelhead migration in Oregon.
Yet it remains the only dam on the Rogue without a defined future.
“It’s the last on the Rogue that doesn’t have a plan for it,” Stauff says. “It’s the last one without an exit strategy.”
Conservation groups already are lining up behind dam removal much as they did 15 years ago with Savage Rapids Dam 19 miles downstream.
“It’s the next logical step, and I think there will be a lot of support for it,” says Andy Kerr, a senior consultant for Oregon Wild and the former conservation director of the Oregon Natural Resources Council who fingered the dam for removal during a short campaign 14 years ago.
“It’s a little overdue, but better late than never.”
Relative lateness aside, Gold Ray Dam’s float to the forefront comes as governmental agencies, conservation groups and members of the public have put their efforts behind systematically removing impediments to Rogue salmon passage.
“A lot of people have grabbed onto the idea of a dam-free Rogue between Lost Creek and the ocean,” Korbulic says. “Gold Ray’s the only one left. And other than creating the backwaters, it has no utilitarian or practical use.”
The history of Gold Ray Dam dates back to a time when two brothers tried to harness the Rogue River for a snickering public that scoffed at the efforts.
The original dam was built from logs in 1904 by brothers C.R. and Frank Ray, who diverted water around the dam site so large timbers could be jammed into the bedrock to form a wall to hold back water.
The impounded water rose the Rogue surface enough to divert it through a powerhouse, whose rope-driven turbines pumped the first hydroelectric power to the Rogue Valley. An antiquated fish ladder helped salmon over what now is the dam’s southern side.
In 1921, the dam became part of the California-Oregon Power Co., which later became Pacific Power. The utility replaced the timber dam with the present concrete dam in 1941, and added a fish ladder and fish-counting station at the same time.
The rope-driven turbines operated for almost 70 years and were the last such turbines when Pacific Power retired them for cost reasons in 1972. The fish ladder and viewing station have remained active, and biologists consider the fish window as the best place on the Rogue to count migrating salmon and steelhead.
In 1972, the utility deeded the dam and its 29 adjacent acres of land to Jackson County for a park.
Shortly thereafter, the county considered demolishing the dam. That plan was dropped because the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife defended the dam for fish counting and others rallied for preserving the upstream wetlands.
But improvements in technology have created other options for counting salmon without the dam’s fish-counting station, says Russ Stauff, the ODFW’s Rogue Watershed manager.
Hydro-accoustics used in Alaskan rivers, for instance, could do the fish-counting job here, Stauff says.
“There’s alternatives available,” Stauff says. “We can figure that out.”