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More Southern Oregon dams destined to fall

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PROVOLT — A gravel push-up dam spanning Williams Creek using 19th century technology is about to get a 21st century makeover that will help the irrigator as well as wild Rogue River Basin salmon.

Called the Lower Bridgepoint Dam, this legal impediment less than a mile upstream of the creek’s confluence with the Applegate River diverts irrigation water but blocks wild salmon and steelhead from as much as 31 miles of usable habitat.

But it’s going away in 2020 when the creek gets recontoured to better deliver irrigation water yet allow upstream and downstream migration year-round of wild steelhead and salmon, including wild coho, a threatened species in the Rogue Basin.

It’s not as high-profile as dynamiting half-built Elk Creek Dam or chiseling the former Gold Ray Dam from the Rogue a decade ago, but it’s the next skirmish in the long battle to bolster wild salmon populations in Oregon’s most high-profile coastal river.

“Removing those big dams was sexy, but this is where we can really produce fish,” says Janelle Dunlevy, executive director of the Applegate Watershed Council. “It’s going to change the dynamics of this stream. And if you want to improve wild coho numbers, this is one of the primary streams to do it.”

Small-stream dynamics will be changing big-time in the Rogue Basin under a $570,000 federal pledge toward reclaiming up to 400 miles of wild salmon and steelhead habitat by removing fish-passage barriers such as this one on Williams Creek.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration grant will target 16 fish blockers like Lower Bridgepoint over the next three years under a grant landed this month by the Rogue Basin Partnership, a consortium of watershed councils and other stream advocates working on restoration projects here.

The partnership will receive $341,000 in NOAA’s Community-based Restoration Program money for the first year of work, which includes the Lower Bridgepoint project, with the remaining $229,000 pending federal appropriations for the second and third years.

If all 16 projects are completed, they would open up to 400 more miles of wild steelhead habitat as well as reachable tributaries for wild coho, chinook salmon and Pacific lamprey, the often overlooked sixth anadromous species that spawns in parts of the middle and upper Rogue Basin.

Tackling these smaller, and some seemingly innocuous fish-passage dilemmas represents the second tier of tackling fish-passage woes in the Rogue Basin after the more prominent mainstem removals of the past decade.

Those include the 2009 removal of Savage Rapids Dam and the 2010 removal of Gold Ray Dam, which opened the Rogue to 157 miles of free-flowing water from Cole Rivers Hatchery to the sea.

But wild steelhead rely on smaller tributaries for spawning, while chinook and coho also use larger tributaries such as the Applegate River, Evans Creek and Illinois River targeted in this round of NOAA-funded work.

“There’s 600 barriers in the Rogue Basin, and people will be pulling out barriers for 100 years,” says Gregory Weber, the partnership’s executive director. “So let’s do the ones that are most important first. And let’s do it together so the fish have a fighting chance.”

The biggest benefactors of these sorts of projects are wild summer and winter steelhead because they venture the farthest up watershed tributaries for spawning. Of that 400 miles open to steelhead, they also will allow wild coho — federally listed as threatened here under the federal Endangered Species Act — to access about 140 miles of that water.

The larger chinook salmon will access about 66 miles of those tributaries, while lamprey will have 119 newly available miles of waterways for them.

Barriers as low as 6 inches can be enough to block juvenile wild coho from migrating out of tributaries as they dry up in spring, according to the RVP.

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

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Jamie Lusch / Mail Tribune Janelle Dunlevy, Executive Director of the Applegate Watershed Council, walks across a gravel push-up dam spanning Williams Creek in the Applegate Valley.