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Gold Ray Dam forum will tackle wetlands

GOLD HILL — Wally Skyrman checks his Google Earth map and is enthralled by the vast amount of Rogue River slack water resting behind Gold Ray Dam, then wonders aloud what will happen if the 105-year-old dam is removed.

"In the mad dash to remove this dam, we're forgetting about those wetlands," Skyrman says.

Skyrman and others concerned about wetland loss amid plans to remove the dam from the Rogue River will get their chance to voice their concerns Tuesday to those preparing to decide the dam's fate.

Jackson County officials have scheduled a public meeting in White City to gather input on the future of the former hydroelectric dam now owned by the county and on tap for possible removal as early as December 2010.

The meeting has been scheduled for 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. at the Jackson County Public Works Auditorium, 7520 Table Rock Road, near Antelope Road.

The meeting represents the first opportunity for the general public to tell county officials what they think about the dam and its future since the county received $5 million in federal economic stimulus money to remove the dam by the end of 2010.

The project must be done by December 2010 to qualify as a federal stimulus project. That deadline compresses the time available for environmental studies and public digestion of them.

"The time frames on this project are very, very tight," says John Vial, director of the county's roads and parks department, who is overseeing the project. "We have to do numerous things concurrently in order to deliver the project on time."

The county is expecting to award a contract some time in September to a company that will design a dam-removal plan and then study the plan's potential impact on everything from the movement of rocks stacked upstream behind the dam to changes in the upstream wetlands.

Vial says Tuesday's meeting will help flush out what public concerns need to be addressed in the upcoming studies.

Not until the studies are done will Jackson County commissioners ultimately determine the dam's fate.

"The purpose of the meeting is to hear people's concerns about keeping the dam and removing the dam," Vial says. "The wetlands is an interesting issue."

Dam-removal's potential impact on the upstream wetlands — including places such as Kelly Slough and other areas that are home to many Rogue fauna — is one of those unknowns at this point, Vial says.

Historical maps show that some wetlands existed before the dam was built in 1904 to light Medford, Vial says. Unstudied so far is the size of the existing wetlands and how much will change if the dam is removed, he says.

Vial says the county likely will be required to provide some mitigation for lost wetlands, "but we don't know how much," he says.

Skyrman says the wetlands alone appear viable and necessary enough to consider keeping the dam despite its status as one of the top five impediments to salmon and steelhead passage in Oregon.

"I hope the commissioners realize it isn't all one-sided, that they can remove the dam and make everyone happy," Skyrman says.

However, removing the dam has a strong contingent of supporters now that other fish impediments are falling. Elk Creek dam has been notched on that upper Rogue tributary and Savage Rapids Dam is in the midst of removal by the end of 2009.

The Medford-based Rogue Flyfishers Association board of directors support dam removal to help salmon and restore 157 miles of free-flowing river from Cole Rivers Hatchery to the sea.

"I don't see any reason to keep the dam there," says association member Lee Wedberg, who plans to testify at Tuesday's meeting. "I'm not going to harangue about it."

Removing the dam would allow rafters, driftboaters and others access to a stretch of river now blocked by the structure.

"It'll help the fish and relieve some of the (boating) pressure on the rest of the river," Wedberg says.

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