GOLD HILL — After seven years of negotiating among local and state officials, work has begun on removing the city's diversion dam — considered the second biggest barrier to fish on the Rogue River.

GOLD HILL — After seven years of negotiating among local and state officials, work has begun on removing the city's diversion dam — considered the second biggest barrier to fish on the Rogue River.

Salem-based Slayden Construction Group and River Design Group Inc. are removing the structure as part of a $1.2 million contract. In-water work began last week.

Project engineer Scott Wright of River Design Group said the first step is creating a temporary dam to keep the work area dry for crews. Workers are using sand bags weighing up to 8 tons and filled with river sediment from the Savage Rapids area, where Slayden is preparing to remove the river's No. 1 fish killer, Savage Rapids Dam.

Measuring 6 feet in length and width and 4 feet high, the bags are about the size of a large car, noted Wright, "not something you'd throw in the back of your truck."

Seven years after the state first ordered the city to limit its diversion of Rogue River water or face fines of up to $1,000 a day, city officials have worked tirelessly to secure grant funding and coordinate a project most larger cities would scoff at, said Craig Harper, water resources program manager for the Rogue Valley Council of Governments and project liaison between the city and state and federal agencies.

"It's been quite an involved and drawn-out project for the city, one they're pretty happy to see finally taking place," Harper said.

Harper helped to coordinate two large Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board grants and two smaller conservation grants for the $1.2 million cost.

The city completed an extensive water intake relocation project upriver from the diversion dam in May 2006.

While work began this week, visible signs of dam removal may not be evident until after the July 4 holiday, said Wright.

"We're going to hold off removing any part of the dam until after the July 4th weekend for safety reasons," Wright said.

"Once we start to physically remove the actual dam, we want to make sure we can get it all out on a daily basis. "¦ People are usually on the river for the holiday weekend and we don't want to have any safety hazards over the holiday weekend."

Buffy Pollock is a freelance writer living in Medford. E-mail her at buffypollock@juno.com.