by Bill Poehler, Statesman Journal | January 2020 | The Statesman Journal
The first time Anna Rankin went to the Scotts Mills Dam, she noticed crosses and flowers on the banks below the dam.
When Rankin, the executive director of the Pudding River Watershed Council, asked about the markers, she learned there had been a number of deaths from people jumping off the dam or rocks on a nearby bank into the pool below the dam.
Like many older dams in Oregon, Scotts Mills Dam has been poorly maintained. The decaying structure is slowly crumbling, and that debris has fallen into the pool below and become a hazard.
The Pudding River Watershed Council, with assistance from the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, is proposing to demolish the dam to eliminate the safety hazard and give the environmentally threatened native salmon some of their native habitat for spawning.
“The thing is there’s not much left of the dam,” Scotts Mills Mayor Paul Brakeman said. “It’s been broken. There’s a large piece missing. If it had been maintained, I would say there is a historical value in it. I don’t have anybody looking to keep it.”
Tearing down the dam is estimated to cost $98,000. It could start in September 2020.
The Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board is expected to decide if it will fund the project in April.
The Marion County Commissioners are scheduled to have a work session about the removal Jan. 21.
Dam plays role in building the city
The Scotts Mills Dam was built in the 1850s.
It was situated on top of an existing 10-foot rock waterfall along Butte Creek, the current boundary between Marion and Clackamas counties.
It was built by molding a 5-foot tall concrete wall approximately 40 feet wide of Butte Creek. Its main function was to divert water into a 100-foot long side channel so water could drive a mill.
In the early days of statehood, the mill became a substantial economic driver in the city.
The dam was converted to generate electricity in the early 1900s and ownership was transferred to Portland General Electric.
But PGE stopped using the dam for electricity in the 1950s, and the utility gave the dam and 10 acres of land surrounding it to Marion County.
That land, which is in Scotts Mills city limits, was combined with 3 acres from private citizens and turned into Scotts Mills County Park, which opened in 1961.
On warm, sunny summer days, the park will fill with families enjoying a picnic, friends playing pick-up baseball games and people canoeing in the waters above the dam.
When Marion County Commissioner Sam Brentano was a child growing up in Woodburn, his family frequently came to the park.
“Dad would take us there to swim on a Sunday,” Brentano said. “We played on the structure. We were all grossed out. There were eels that worked their way up there.”
At some point after the electricity-generating had ended, the side channel was turned into a fishway for fish to migrate upstream.
But since then, the dam has received little maintenance or attention and it has fallen into disrepair.
When the Spring Break Quake hit in March of 1993, Scotts Mills was at the epicenter of the 5.6 magnitude earthquake.
When flooding hit in 1996, a 3-foot wide section of the rim of the dam broke off, and another portion has fallen off since then.
At one point in the past couple decades, the Marion Soil and Water Conservation District looked at repairing Scotts Mills Dam, but deemed it would be more cost effective to knock it down.
“At this point, the dam no longer functions to cause the flow of the creek in such a way that it is passable for fish,” Rankin said.
Dams being torn down in Oregon
As of 2013, there were 27,800 dams documented in Oregon.
Many of the dams were built for reasons including providing water for irrigation, municipal uses, recreation and flood control.
In some areas, dams were the first man-made structures erected.
“A lot of these are irrigation diversion dams,” said John DeVoe, executive director of WaterWatch of Oregon. “We’re not talking about big hydropower dams.”
Many smaller dams have been poorly maintained.
A Stanford University report said nearly 1,000 dams in the United States have failed since the 1970s, and 34 deaths have been attributed to those failures.
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There are four dams in Oregon with unsatisfactory ratings – meaning they are in danger of collapsing – and 18 more are classified as poor.
When the Endangered Species Act became law in 1973, dam operators were required to provide fish passage around the structures so native species could spawn in their native habitat.
Constructing fish ladders can be cost prohibitive and cost millions of dollars, so demolishing them has come into vogue.
Among the dams removed have been the Brownell Dam on the Umatilla River, the Trask River Dam and the Wimer Dam on the Rogue River, and the highest profile was the Marmot Dam on the Sandy River in 2007.
“They literally dynamited it out,” Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife stream restoration biologist Dave Stewart said.
Between 2013 and 2018, 75 dams in Oregon have been removed or fish passages were added.
The Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board has funded many of the dam removals.
“It can be expensive. It’s not as simple as going in with the backhoe and busting the thing up,” DeVoe said.
Issues include: is the dam in a publicly-owned waterway, who built the dam and the chain of ownership can be hard to prove.
“They just get abandoned,” DeVoe said. “Frequently they’d rather not admit that they own the dam.
“There are literally thousands of these small dams around the state and at some point, if we want to have salmon in the future and steelhead, they’re going to have to do something about these.”
One of the hang-ups about removing Scotts Mills Dam, however, has been questions over who owns it.
Who owns Scotts Mills Dam?
For years questions have lingered: Is Scotts Mills Dam owned by Marion County, a private landowner on the Clackamas County side of the stream or both.
“It became a kind of contentious part of the discussion,” Rankin said.
Butte Creek originates in the Cascade Mountain Range, about 8 miles north of Gates and flows about 33 miles into the Pudding River and serves as the border between Marion and Clackamas counties.
When Oregon became a state in 1859, it acquired all waterways that ebbed and flowed with the tides, which includes 12 major rivers including the Willamette River.
Butte Creek was not considered navigable at the time of statehood, according to the Department of State Lands, and thus is not owned by the state.
In cases of privately-owned land, such as the Scotts Mills Dam, the landowner owns the ground to the middle of the body of water – though the water is publicly owned – unless it has been excluded on a title transfer.
Rankin said she checked with the Marion County Clerk’s office and the deed transfer to Marion County from PGE didn’t exclude the dam, meaning it is owned by the county and the landowner on the other side.
“If you were doing a full fish passage, it would cost millions of dollars,” Rankin said.
After years of debating the subject, the Marion County Parks Commission, an advisory board, voted at its November meeting to move ahead with the plan to remove the dam.
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The matter will now move to the Marion County Commissioners to decide what they will do about it.
“I’ve been opposed to it all along until the most recent parks commission meeting,” Brentano said. “I don’t know if I feel strongly enough to spend county money on it.”
But Brentano said recent support from the Scotts Mills City Council to move forward with the proposal gave him reason to support it.
Dam on Priority List
The Scotts Mills Dam has been on Oregon’s Statewide Fish Passage Barrier Priority List, but it is significantly further down the list than some like Detroit Reservoir and Foster Reservoir.
The project has been looked at many times over the years, but it didn’t pick up steam until the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife looked at it in 2018.
“I figured if we can get this thing done with very little money to the taxpayer, it might be worth our while,” Stewart said.
Butte Creek is native habitat for Endangered Species Act-listed Spring Chinook, and Winter Steelhead as well as Coho and Cutthroat Trout.
If approved, the dam’s structure would be removed in the low-water time of September 2020.
The concrete removed will be hauled to a rock quarry, with the disposal being donated by K&E Excavating.
Stewart said ODFW would contribute up to 60 percent of the project, and the application to the Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board seeks $49,992.
The application asks for no money from Marion County.
“What we’re doing is kind of a phased approach,” Stewart said. “We’re trying to do this without spending a ton of money to start with.
“Let’s remove the dam and do our best to stabilize that, and then see how it responds. There’s some sediment behind it, so that will probably blow through.”
Stewart said ODFW has seen evidence throughout the northwest that when dams are removed, runs of fish improve dramatically, and he said other work the Pudding River Watershed Council is performing elsewhere on the river will help, too.
He said the department doesn’t have surveys of Butte Creek, but several retired biologists have volunteered their services.
Before the project can begin, however, the landowner agreements must be in place, and the crews will need permission to access the structure from the land, which likely would be at Scotts Mills County Park.
“It’s a great project,” Rankin said. “From a certain point of view, it’s a slam dunk. No brainer. Go remove that small dam. It’s going to be safer. It’s going to be more navigable for fish. Why not?”
bpoehler@StatesmanJournal.com or Twitter.com/bpoehler