Federal officials have granted supporters of Little Hyatt Lake at least a year to come up with an estimated $150,000 to help pay for fortifying the lake's crumbling dam or see it shaved down to avoid a catastrophic failure.

Federal officials have granted supporters of Little Hyatt Lake at least a year to come up with an estimated $150,000 to help pay for fortifying the lake's crumbling dam or see it shaved down to avoid a catastrophic failure.

The U.S. Bureau of Land Management on Thursday gave an option to those who want to see the survival of this off-the-beaten-path picnic and fishing site east of Ashland, while alleviating the BLM's safety and maintenance concerns.

The cash-strapped agency has asked Congress for $475,000 in its 2011 fiscal budget — enough to meet the estimated cost of cutting about 6 feet off the top of the 18-foot-tall dam to reduce the size of the lake and relieve pressure against the dam.

The BLM would move forward with buttressing the dam if community supporters paid the difference — effectively buying an upgrade to keep the 87-year-old lake intact.

"Our bottom line is, we're going to go with the cheapest alternative," said John Gerritsma, the BLM's Ashland Resource Area field manager. "We want to be very frugal with the money we spend.

"But there's been strong desire all along to save the lake," Gerritsma said. "We'll have to rely on the community to help support the project."

The buttressing alternative was estimated to cost $625,000, but the exact cost won't be known until the BLM receives the money to seek bids on either alternative, Gerritsma said.

If the money for the project materialized in the upcoming budget, construction bids likely could not be sought before spring 2011, he said.

"The reality is, until the project goes to bid, we don't know what the cost is," Gerritsma said.

That has frustrated dam supporters who say they need to know how much money they need to raise before they can get it.

"It's like a chicken-and-egg thing, but it's been that way from the beginning," said Suzi Given, a board member of Friends of the Greensprings, a group that has been working to save the dam.

FOG in 2008 secured a $150,000 cost-share grant from a private foundation in California should the BLM fund its match, Given said.

That grant was rescinded and the money distributed elsewhere when the BLM failed to get the project funded, Given said.

Given said she believes the unnamed foundation likely would be interested in donating to the buttressing because retaining the dam would preserve the 11-acre lake and its aquatic habitat without blocking salmon or steelhead runs.

Given said Gerritsma's decision was encouraging.

"I think they hear the community," she said. "I think the BLM knows we as a community feel the lake is important to save. But we're a long way off."

Gerritsma said BLM would accept shaving the dam down or buttressing it because either option meets its primary objectives of reducing safety hazards and eliminating long-term financial liability for maintenance, Gerritsma said.

In the meantime, the old dam still has cracks that are monitored by photographs and physically inspected weekly for signs of catastrophic failure, Gerritsma said.

The lake is now full, but a siphoning system previously installed to draw down the water level remains in place should the dam show evidence of weakening, he said.

The lake was drawn down in 2007 while temporary reinforcements were added.

The dam's structural integrity is one of many pitfalls facing Little Hyatt Lake, minutes from Hyatt Lake along the Greensprings Highway east of Ashland.

The BLM, which took possession of the lake and dam from the Talent Irrigation District in 1993, has no state water right to impound the lake. Also, part of the lake covers private land, creating a potential trespass problem.

The lake has been in place since 1923, when the dam was built for TID as part of its early delivery system for pushing water from Hyatt Lake into Emigrant Lake for irrigators in the Bear Creek Basin. When the federal Bureau of Reclamation built the Keene Creek Reservoir, Little Hyatt became inoperable.

Though irrelevant to irrigators, Little Hyatt has remained popular with people looking for recreation off the beaten path. TID considered removing the dam in the early 1990s, but the district signed it over to the BLM to keep the lake's recreational opportunities intact.

Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470, or e-mail at mfreeman@mailtribune.com.