The End of an Era

The End of an Era

By Mark Freeman
Mail Tribune
May 16, 2008
Credit: Mail Tribune

ROGUE RIVER — As the last steel panel descended by crane and slipped into place at Savage Rapids Dam, Grants Pass Irrigation District Manager Dan Shepard was too distracted to relish history.

His eyes were riveted on three GPID workers, all wearing life jackets, who were teetering atop the dam to secure the final panel used to back up Rogue River water.

“It’s more stressful than anything,” Shepard says. “Everything’s so old. Being this is the last time, you just don’t want to lose anyone on your watch.

“So I guess it hasn’t registered with me yet,” he says.

The final irrigation season of the Savage Rapids Dam era begins today when Rogue water gets diverted to GPID canals for the last time with the aid of the Rogue’s single largest fish killer.

The 87-year-old dam, which spans the Rogue near the Jackson/Josephine county line, is set to be removed next spring and replaced for the 2009 irrigation season by electric pumps now under construction.

Once completed, the plant will pump up to 150 cubic feet per second of Rogue water to GPID’s 9,000 customers.

“It’s like 100-year-old technology they’re using out there,” said WaterWatch attorney Bob Hunter, who has worked with GPID and the federal Bureau of Reclamation for more than 20 years to remove the dam.

“It’s going to be so much better when all they have to do is push a button,” Hunter said.

“They’re getting new technology that preserves their future and does a great thing for the Rogue’s fish. It’s exciting. It’s history.”

For decades, the dam’s antiquated fish ladders and screens have drawn intense scrutiny for their role in harming the Rogue’s ability to produce more wild salmon and steelhead.

Government studies show that removing the dam and installing the pumps is the best and least costly, long-term solution to the current dam’s fish-passage problems while keeping GPID in the irrigation business.

Salem-based Slayden Construction Group, which has the $28 million contract on the project, is building the pumping plant and is scheduled to remove the dam beginning next April.

Preparing the dam for its final hurrah was no easy task, with many of the same materials and procedures used since the structure was altered in 1957, Shepard says.

First, radial gates at the dam’s base were slowly cranked open Monday, dropping the water behind the dam about 6 feet for cleaning and to make room for GPID crews to create the dam’s summer profile.

Crews then used a crane to transport and install removable piers that bolt into the concrete, forming sleeves into which the “stop logs” are slipped to raise the dam’s height to 28 feet.

The stop logs are 3,800-pound steel plates, but they retain the name of the actual logs used when the dam went into operation, Shepard says.

Three GPID crewmen wrestled the pieces into place like they have year after year. Worn over time, the piers gave fits to the crewmen, who all the while walked and climbed on the structure as Shepard watched nervously from shore.

“After 50 years, it’s a hassle,” Shepard says. “It’s one of those little things that makes the dam obsolete.”

Once the 24 panels were in place Wednesday, the radial gates were slowly closed and the Rogue backed up behind the dam until water spilled over the top Thursday, filling fish ladders on both ends of the dam.

Plans today were to send water into the main canals at both ends of the dam and begin the dam’s final irrigation season sometime this morning, Shepard said.

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