For decades, the Rogue River has flowed at thousands of cubic feet per second as it quietly slipped between Gold Hill and Grants Pass. Yet somewhere in that relatively short stretch of river, the water slowed to an almost imperceptible speed, lying flat and lake-like above Savage Rapids Dam.

For decades, the Rogue River has flowed at thousands of cubic feet per second as it quietly slipped between Gold Hill and Grants Pass. Yet somewhere in that relatively short stretch of river, the water slowed to an almost imperceptible speed, lying flat and lake-like above Savage Rapids Dam.

By midday Friday, the river had escaped that man-made restraint and once again flowed at its own pace toward the Pacific Ocean. Somewhere in that flow, salmon and steelhead made their way the opposite direction, upstream toward their ancestral spawning grounds. For the first time in 88 years, that trip did not involve a search for a way around the concrete blockade at Savage Rapids, nor a trip up the antiquated steps of the dam's fish ladder.

The breaching of the dam by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers came not with a bang and a torrent of water, but instead with a small trickle that persisted and grew until the entire river took to a new course along its north bank. That was fitting, given the slow, but steady progress made over the past three-plus decades in removing the dam.

The harbinger of the dam's removal came in 1981, when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife released a study showing the dam was killing salmon and steelhead trying to move upstream past the dam and their smolts whose downstream journey all too often ended at the dam or in an irrigation canal.

From that point, it would take nearly another 20 years before it seemed possible that it would actually happen and most of another decade before it did happen. And now that it has happened, a lot of people probably wonder, what was all the fuss about?

When the push for dam removal began in earnest, many political leaders lined up in opposition. Where was the proof, they asked, that the dam was killing fish? Fish and Wildlife computer studies in the '90s put the dam's annual toll on salmon and steelhead at more than 43,000, a fact ignored or disputed by many, who apparently wanted proof only if they agreed with it.

Leading the charge initially against removal was the Grants Pass Irrigation District, whose members drew water from the river through a series of leaky canals that originated at the dam. They were joined by the Jackson County Board of Commissioners, several state legislators — including then-Senate President Brady Adams of Grants Pass — Grants Pass Mayor Gordon Anderson and Rogue River Mayor Royal DeLand. Second District Congressman Bob Smith threw up passive resistance, demanding more studies before any consideration of removal.

Now, nearly into the second decade of the 21st century, Savage Rapids Dam is gone, the Grants Pass Irrigation District is getting water through pumps installed at the site and the fish have one less obstacle on a journey that's tough enough without human interference. Yes, it cost tens of millions of dollars, but a list of federal projects costing tens of millions of dollars would fill this newspaper many times over. It was money well-spent.

The truth is, much of the opposition had nothing to do with irrigation and everything to do with a political and social culture that felt under siege. Those who depended on natural resources for their livelihood — loggers, miners, farmers and the communities they supported — were losing fights in Salem, Washington and the courts with alarming regularity. The prospect of losing a dam was just another notch in the loss column.

Cooler heads ultimately prevailed. In Congress, Republican Sen. Gordon Smith joined with Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden in 2000 to sponsor a bill to remove the dam and Congressman Greg Walden cautiously signed onto the effort. The game was over in 2003 with approval of legislation to remove the dam and install irrigation pumps.

So, at last, in 2009 the dam is gone and the Rogue runs unimpeded from Gold Ray Dam to the ocean. Efforts are also under way to remove Gold Ray, which like Savage Rapids has long since outlived its intended purpose. If that happens, the Rogue would flow dam-free for 157 miles, fish would swim dam-free for 157 miles and the community could again celebrate the rejuvenation of a river and a legacy that we all should be proud to protect.