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1987: Flowing free

The dams that form Emigrant, Applegate and Lost Creek lakes are well known. Many longtime residents recall devastating floods that prompted the construction of the dams and are grateful for the protection they provide.

Farmers and ranchers appreciate the reservoirs of water available during the growing seasons, the lakes provide a welcome relief during hot summers, and water released from the Emigrant Lake Dam produces hydroelectric power for the region. The dams also allow for measured and temperature-adjusted water releases to help fish survive.

The importance of these three Army Corps of Engineers dams is not in question, but hundreds of other Southern Oregon dams are subject to increasing scrutiny because they impede fish passage.

In 1987, Army Corps of Engineers Project Manager Vince Steinkamp touted the benefits of the Elk Creek Dam near Trail and reported on construction progress in an Our Valley feature called “A River Runs Through It.” Just three years later, the Elk Creek Dam was stalled in court and the Mail Tribune headlines read, “A debate over dams, recreation groups see effect on runs.”

It wasn’t until 2008 that the Army Corps of Engineers began to notch and deconstruct the barriers on Elk Creek and restore the natural flow of the water.

In the past, dams were controversial, causing tensions between landowners and those who advocated for aquatic habitat and fish passage. Today, state and federal policies and Southern Oregon public opinion tend to advocate for fish.

“We have a huge momentum for restoration of fish passage highlighted by the older mainstem dams removed 2008-2010, Gold Hill, Savage Rapids and Gold Ray,” says Dan Van Dyke, a fish biologist with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. “We have a lot of opportunities to restore passage here in the Rogue.”

“We’re still finding dams that nobody knows anything about. They aren’t serving any purpose, nobody remembers why they are there,” Van Dyke notes. “There was one on Lazy Creek in Bear Creek Park in Medford; I remember during a storm watching some steelhead trying to pass but they didn’t make it. We finally worked with the city to remove the dam. There was another one on Jones Creek in Grants Pass that didn’t have a purpose anymore.”

Dam removal is complicated by a patchwork of private, public and utility landowners. A dozen or more governmental and quasi-governmental agencies work together to facilitate dam removal, improve fish passage and manage water flow.

The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife maintains a registry of dams that impede fish passage, prioritized by severity of barriers to fish passage, the quantity and quality of species blocked and other factors. The list provides a rational basis for the allocation of scarce funds to the most critical dam removal projects.

The 2013 list notes two Evans Creek dams near the confluence of the Rogue River as the top priority. These dams, Wimer Dam and Fielder Dam, were removed in 2015, opening up 70 miles of fish passage.

Other Southern Oregon dams of lower priority have been identified for removal on Little Butte Creek, the Klamath River and the Applegate River.

Alexis Larsen is fish passage project manager with the Rogue River Watershed Council; she specializes in small dam removal work that can be concrete, or seasonal “push-up dams” made of cobble and rock. Sometimes the push-up dams are only two or three feet in height, but they block juvenile fish passage.

“Most of the dams we work on are on private property and also involve water rights. We begin with phone calls and letters and connecting with our partners who might be doing work in the area to get in touch with the landowners and start a discussion about what a dam removal project might look like, how it might benefit them and preserve their water rights,” Larsen says.

The Rogue Valley Watershed Council will work with licensed engineers to design alternative irrigation systems that allow for fish passage. Trout Unlimited provides other options for landowners if they don’t want to retain water rights; water rights can be leased or transferred back to the stream.

Dam removal results in increased sediment and involves bank stabilization and habitat restoration. According to Larsen, these are generally short-term concerns.

“Our project on Wagner Creek took about two weeks to complete, and part of that was waiting on concrete to dry for the new intake system,” Larsen says. “We built a rough in channel using rocks and boulders to create a certain grade to help flow and fish passage; once that project was complete, it looked like a natural stream.”

“You can’t block fish passage; that dates to even pre-statehood,” Dan Van Dyke says. “You have to maintain fish passage with what you do in the waterways or you have to ask for a waiver or an exemption. There’s a clearcut direction. We definitely want to maintain fish passage.

“People cared. People fought hard, because dams aren’t good for salmon and steelhead,” Van Dyke adds.

Reach Ashland freelance writer Maureen Flanagan Battistella at mbattistellaor@gmail.com.

Army Corp of Engineer employees and media representatives check out the newly notched Elk Creek Dam in 2008. Mail Tribune/file photo