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New marina underway at Howard-Prairie Lake

The $6 million project should be ready next summer — if the water returns
Jamie Lusch/Mail TribuneThe docks for the marina at Howard Prairie Resort are high and dry, but a new marina is being built with the docks in deeper water, which should eventually get boaters back on the water.

The metal pilings stand erect in the dirt along the shore of Howard Prairie Lake like a Stonehenge of sorts highlighting the transition from the past to the future.

The pilings are the crux of a new almost $6 million marina in the works at Jackson County’s Howard Prairie Resort, where an old wooden marina was left high and dry in the dirt from chronic low water at this irrigation reservoir east of Ashland.

By next spring, the pilings will be surrounded by floating metal docks and a series of walkways opening access for anglers, sailboaters and others who have been waiting decades for this upgrade.

“It’s really taking shape out there,” says Steve Lambert, the county’s roads and parks director, who has spearheaded the marina’s transformation for nearly a decade.

“Just with the pilings, you can visualize what it’s going to look like — once we get the water,” Lambert says.

When completed, the new marina will be larger, safer and in deeper water that should make it more accessible than the former shallow-water marina rendered useless by drought.

But the D-word, as its known around Southern Oregon water recreators, continues to loom large.

The same drought that has allowed contractors to fast-track building the pilings on dry land at a fraction of the cost also means the new facility won’t really earn its bones until water levels return to Howard Prairie.

“If there’s water, we’d be there,” says Dick Barbara, commodore of the Rogue Yacht Club sailing group that has had to sail elsewhere due to chronic low-water at Howard Prairie.

“We’ve been chomping at the bit for a new marina for 20 years,” Barbara says. “It’ll be a good meeting place for fishers and other boaters.”

Future gatherings at the new-look Howard Prairie Marina took a large step forward earlier this month when the Oregon State Marine Board approved an almost $563,000 grant to fund the next phase of work.

The grant will pay for the main floating docks and walkways, all set to be built and installed by May 2023.

The final phase will be the completion of the so-called “finger docks” for tie-up boats. That $1.8 million addition, Lambert says, will be paid largely from state and federal grants.

The marina would include a slight increase in the number of moorage slips to 126, with separate slips for rentals and 700 feet of transient tie-up space that could accommodate large events such as yachting regattas and bass-fishing tournaments.

Metal pilings would replace the current wood ones and rise as much as 28 feet to account for the fluctuating water levels in this irrigation-driven reservoir. It would include a fueling dock, a water station and be fully compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The old marina was built haphazardly over more than five decades by the county and various concessionaires who operated the resort on the county’s behalf. Since the county began running the operation there in 2013, it has invested more than $1 million in the facilities, including campgrounds and bathrooms, Lambert says.

However, the county previously estimated losses of about $100,000 a year on lost launch, slip and boat rentals when the docks are dry.

Even when they floated, the docks had few fans.

“The old docks were getting kind of dangerous,” Barbara says. “You really had to watch your step.”

The yacht club and Lambert have been working on the rebuild possibilities dating back at least to 2014. And though the process has been slow and exacerbated by low-lake levels that have left the old marina inoperable the past three years, including this year, the county has still found a way to make lemonade from the situation.

The new marina will be in deeper water adjacent to the old marina, so the new confines should be in the water longer than in the past — once the water returns.

While the lake has remained woefully far away from that location, construction crews were able to drive out on the exposed lakebed this winter to install the galvanized steel pilings instead of using floating barges to do so.

That saved the county about $750,000, Lambert says.

It’s an example how finding ways to piece the new marina together can transform what once seemed like a pipe dream into reality.

“It’s one of those projects we’ve been working on for eight years,” Lambert says. “It’s been hard-fought. It’s nice to see it coming together.”

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470 or mfreeman@rosebudmedia.com.