Un-Damming Elk Creek: Controversial Rogue River dam to make way for salmon
More than 20 years after its construction was halted in 1987, the Elk Creek Dam, which has long blocked endangered salmon runs in the Rogue River Basin, is coming down. Mostly, anyway.
The Army Corps of Engineers is starting work “notching” the dam in mid-May. The notch is an essentially an opening in the dam. In this case, it’s an opening large enough to allow the river to return to its normal course.
The Army Corps announced in March that it hired the firm McMillen-McDougall for a 7.9 million dollar contract to “design and carry out a project to remove a section of the incomplete dam and return Elk Creek to its original alignment and gradient through the resulting notch.”
Elk Creek Dam is about 26 miles northeast of Medford and sits on a tributary of the Rogue River. There are spawning grounds for endangered coho salmon and steelhead located above the dam, according to Bob Hunter of Waterwatch in southern Oregon, who says the dam was “a project that never should have commenced.”
The dam has been a source of controversy among conservationists and politicians — “a long smoldering issue,” says Sean Stevens of Oregon Wild — since 1962. That was when Congress authorized its construction as part of three dams in the Rogue River basin proposed after the basin flooded in 1955. The dams were to control flooding and provide water and recreation. Elk Creek was the last of the dams to be built, and according to Hunter, it was never necessary. “There was no need for the water, and if completed, it would have been a dry reservoir,” he says.
Arguments against the dam played out in Congress, with then-Senator Mark Hatfield pushing to have the dam built and Congressman Jim Weaver trying to halt its construction. Oregon Wild (then Oregon Natural Resources Council) and others filed a lawsuit in 1985 to try to stop the dam as well, says Stevens. But construction began in 1986.
It was soon halted. In late 1987, an injunction in Federal district court stopped the dam at 83 feet, one-third of its intended height. The portion of the dam that exists blocked endangered salmon and steelhead passage on the creek.
Then the Army Corps of Engineers began trapping salmon below the dam and hauling them in trucks around the structure. That technique has many downsides, according to Hunter. For one thing, it’s expensive, with costs of over $200,000 a year. In 1999, the National Marine Fisheries service said the trap-and-haul facility at Elk Creek was “grossly inadequate” and fish were dying due to “excessive fish handling … resulting in stress and potential injury.” Completion of the dam also would have destroyed elk and deer habitat, says Hunter.
After Weaver and Hatfield left office, the fight over the dam continued both in Congress and in the courts. Although the Army Corps wasn’t pursuing the construction of the dam, Republican Congressman Greg Walden continued to argue for its existence and against notching. After Democrats took control in Congress, Stevens says, “Walden couldn’t stop it.”
Most of the existing structure of the dam will stay in place, but the notch will allow for salmon to pass through the dam unimpeded. The construction of the notch is expected to mainly take place during early June and late July. There will also be work to restore the creek to its original channel, and the trap-and-haul facility is expected to be removed by mid-September, according to the Army Corps.
Stevens says the opening of the dam won’t be “that fantastic to watch.” It won’t be exploding water and cement. Rather, the stream — and salmon— will simply begin to flow through what remains of the structure.