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Highs and lows

There is rarely a day when Jackson County's largest artificial structure doesn't affect Charlie Brown.

A Rogue River fishing guide and river-lover, Brown is one of many Rogue Valley residents who live on or near lands directly impacted by the placement and operation of Lost Creek dam.

The structure helps control floods, boosts summer water flows in the Rogue River, and helps some wild salmon survive and prosper while harming others. Some like the way it tames the Rogue, others worry it has beaten the wild Rogue close to submission.

Regardless of your view, the dam's fingerprints are everywhere as it helps eliminate the highest of winter flows and the lowest of summer flows.

"This valley wouldn't be the same without it," Brown says between steelhead-fishing trips on the Rogue. "And it's amazing to me how many people have lived in this valley forever and don't know anything about it."

Completed in 1977, Lost Creek dam — officially called William L. Jess Dam — spans the Rogue north of Trail, 158 miles from the river's mouth at Gold Beach. The earthen dam rises 327 feet and backs up the Rogue and its tributaries for 10 miles, blocking the wild salmon and steelhead that once spawned there.

It was built primarily in response to a devastating flood in 1955 and was authorized by Congress in 1962 as part of a three-dam project envisioned for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. It was joined by Applegate Dam in 1980, but Elk Creek Dam was scuttled because of the cumulative impacts of three impoundments on the Rogue's ecology.

The dam's primary operations as laid out by Congress are flood control (now called flood reduction by the Corps) and downstream fisheries enhancement, and evidence of each lies in what you see and don't see along the Rogue now that the dam is in its 40th year of operation.

And both benefits come at a price.

Brown sees the dam's flood-control benefits every time he launches his driftboat at the public ramp in Shady Cove for the seven-mile float to Dodge Bridge, where Highway 234 crosses the Rogue near Eagle Point very close to Brown's house.

During high-water events, Corps hydrologists regulate the Rogue to curb flooding at three places, and Dodge Bridge is the first. It takes roughly four hours for water to flow from the base of the dam to the gauge on the bridge, and regulators juggle releases to keep flows there below 20,000 cubic feet per second — about 10 times the standard summer flow.

Since Lost Creek dam went live in 1977, the Rogue has hit flood stage at Dodge Bridge just three times. Only one of those — New Year's Eve in 2005 — was higher than 3 inches above flood stage, according to the Corps.

Evidence of the dam's impact is everywhere, Brown says.

"You float down the upper river, there are houses right there next to the water," Brown says. "You don't live that close to a river without a dam. "If you live in the floodplain, you're glad it's there."

But curbing peak flows means less gravel and other substrate is moved downriver each winter. That has led to reduced gravel in the far upper Rogue, to the point that gravel actually has been dumped into the river to replace what the dam traps.

But reams and reams of studies suggest the impacts on the Rogue's most venerable denizens — wild salmon and steelhead — are more complex, with benefits and debits riverwide, with winners and losers in constant change.

Studies show the biggest benefits of the dam to fish is supplemented summer flows that rise and cool the Rogue. The higher, cooler-than-normal flows have allowed the basin's wild fall chinook salmon to expand throughout the middle Rogue and portions of the upper Rogue.

Those same cooler summer waters help all wild salmon and steelhead juveniles while rearing in the Rogue. And in drought years such as 2015, the release of stored water at key times helps stave off disease outbreaks that would have wiped out much of the Rogue's spring chinook run in pre-dam years, researchers say.

But research also shows that the biggest loser of the dam's placement and operation are wild spring chinook. The dam's placement cut off 30 percent of its natural spawning habitat. For that alone, some still talk about Lost Creek dam with four-letter words.

But it could have been worse, says Pete Samarin, fisheries biologist who studies the Rogue water releases for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife and makes flow recommendations to best serve Rogue fish.

"We lost habitat, but we didn't lose 90 percent of the habitat like some of those dams in the Willamette Basin," Samarin says.

The wild fish are replaced with hatchery-bred spring chinook, which a new study shows are genetically inferior to wild chinook.

Also, the solar warming of the reservoir in the winter means winter water temperatures are higher than natural, causing chinook eggs to incubate faster than normal and to hatch earlier than normal.

To make up for the unnatural winter river temperatures, late-summer flows are artificially cooler than normal. 

This constant tweaking of water flows and temperatures to make the outcome for wild salmon as natural as possible means the Rogue is almost never in a natural state. Water flows are only natural during about three weeks each fall when the Corps releases as much water from the reservoir as is flowing in. It's called "passing inflow," but it's no passing matter.

"The river looks completely different, and how people use the river is completely different," Brown says. "And the river is completely different."

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470 or mfreeman@mailtribune.com. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MTwriterFreeman.

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Pete Samarin, a state fish biologist, stands along whatís known as the ìholy waterî section of the Rogue River below Lost Creek Dam. 2014 File Photo
Water is released into the Rogue River from Lost Creek Lake to make room for storm runoff. 2013 File Photo