A conservation group has filed a federal suit against the owners of a defunct Evans Creek irrigation dam near Rogue River, arguing that the dam must be fixed or removed to allow safe passage of protected coho salmon.
WaterWatch of Oregon spokesmen say the group filed the suit Wednesday in U.S. District Court in Medford after failed attempts to get the landowners to agree to a plan to remove Fielder Dam at no cost to them.
The federal civil suit now asks a judge either to force the landowners to remove the dam or to fix its antiquated fish ladder to protect wild coho salmon, which are listed as threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act.
The suit also asked that the landowners be barred from storing water behind the dam without a permit and also asked for WaterWatch's costs and attorneys fees for the court fight, the latest step in several years' worth of attempts by conservation groups to settle fish passage issues there.
"We just feel we can't afford to continue waiting year after year while a defunct dam continues to harm wild coho," WaterWatch attorney Bob Hunter said. "If people aren't willing to cooperate, the only resort we really have is to move forward with litigation."
The civil suit lists the dam's owners as Steve and Sharon Keeton as well as a family trust involving Sharon Keeton and her brothers, Ronald and Rodney Crume.
The Keetons did not return a telephone call seeking comment Wednesday. The Crumes could not be reached for comment.
Wild coho in the Rogue River Basin, along with other wild coho populations in Southern Oregon and Northern California, were listed as threatened in 1997 under the federal ESA. That designation requires that no one kill or harm them without a federal permit and the suit claims the dam's presence violates those requirements.
The current concrete version of the 25-foot-tall Fielder Dam was built in the early 1930s to feed an irrigation system that disbanded in the mid-1980s. It no longer diverts irrigation water, and has a fish ladder on its east end that was built in 1940s.
In 2002, the dam was identified as an impediment to adult and juvenile coho in Evans Creek, a major middle Rogue tributary. The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife earlier this year listed Fielder Dam, as well as Wimer Dam farther up Evans Creek, as two of the top 10 worst fish barriers in Oregon.
Jim McCarthy, WaterWatch's Southern Oregon program manager in Ashland, said WaterWatch would still like to reach a settlement.
Hunter said an agreement with the landowners would allow WaterWatch to seek grants that would fund the studies, engineering and removal.
"We feel there's a lot of restoration money out there," Hunter said. "Given the priority of Fielder Dam, we think we would have been successful finding the money."
Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470, or email at firstname.lastname@example.org.