The Return of a Wild River

The Return of a Wild River

By The Oregonian Editorial Board
The Oregonian
October 13, 2009


It took more than 20 years to get rid of the Savage Rapids Dam on the Rogue River even after it became clear that the squat concrete structure did far more harm than good. Now that the dam’s finally been breached the river, too, seems furious about the delay.

A Grants Pass man died Friday when his jetboat crashed in the newly formed rapids a few hundred yards below where the dam once slowed the Rogue River to a crawl. Another experienced river-runner capsized his driftboat in the boiling whitewater during a dam-breaching celebration on Saturday. This newly wild stretch of the Rogue is not to be messed with.

The truth is, the stretch of the Rogue River between Gold Hill and Grants Pass should have been turned loose years, even decades, ago. It was way back in 1981 when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services produced a study that showed definitively that the Savage Rapids Dam, which was built five miles upstream from Grants Pass, was killing off salmon and steelhead.

An entire generation of Southern Oregon elected officials, led by then-Senate President Brady Adams, a Grants Pass Republican, rose up to defend the dam, even though its benefits to the region were negligible. Savage Rapids didn’t produce any electricity and didn’t provide much, if any, flood control. All it did was slow the river and allow the Grants Pass Irrigation District to divert water into a series of leaky, inefficient canals.

Yet everyone from the then-mayor of Grants Pass to the Jackson County commissioners to former Congressman Bob Smith chose to fight for a poorly constructed dam that later studies would show killed tens of thousands of salmon and steelhead every year.

But dam-breaching advocates, led by Waterwatch and its attorney, Bob Hunter, kept pushing, pushing, pushing against Savage Rapids. The aging, 39-foot-tall concrete structure, and the flimsy arguments for its preservation, eventually gave way. Oregon Sens. Ron Wyden and Gordon Smith cosponsored a bill in Congress in 2000 to remove the dam and provide a pumping system to feed the Grants Pass Irrigation District canals. The legislation was approved in 2003. Oregon’s congressional delegation and Gov. Ted Kulongoski helped secure about $30 million to remove the dam and install the irrigation pumping system.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers went to work removing the dam in 2007. The river was finally freed when the corps punched a small hole in the dam, and the Rogue began cutting a new course along its north bank. Now the Rogue, one of the great rivers of the West, runs wild and free all the way from Gold Ray Dam to the Pacific, a distance of some 125 miles.

The removal of the Savage Rapids Dam is estimated to restore more than 100,000 additional adult salmon and steelhead in the Rogue River each year and increase boating on the river. But the accidents over the weekend suggest that boaters ought to give the Rogue time to fill the holes in its new channel and settle down. For now, the Rogue River seems to be fiercely celebrating its newfound freedom.

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