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One dam at a time

MURPHY — Herman Baertschiger Sr. scans the Murphy Dam spanning 100 yards across the Applegate River, and he can't see how anyone could possibly consider it a fish-killer, especially with its concrete fish ladder that was state of the art when built 45 years ago.

"The fish don't even have to jump," Baertschiger says. "They can swim right through. You can go there in late August and September and the fish are lined up to take a number."

But the ladder doesn't meet current state and federal fish-passage standards on this major salmon and steelhead spawning and rearing tributary of the Rogue River, state biologists say. The water flowing through the dam confuses migrating adult salmon looking for the ladder, and the dam's other flaws keep small rearing salmon from moving freely up and down the Applegate in search of cool tributaries during hot summers, biologists say.

That's why Murphy Dam will join Pomeroy Dam on the Illinois River as the two worst impediments to wild salmon movement in the Rogue Basin once the ongoing removals of Wimer and Fielder dams from Evans Creek are completed this summer.

Murphy and Pomeroy dams will be the highest ranking structures in the Rogue Basin on the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife's State Fish Passage Priority List, but they don't rank within the top 10 statewide, marking the first time since the list's inception eight years ago that the Rogue Basin has no dams among Oregon's worst of the worst.

The two are included in a cluster of structures ranked 10th to 20th on a list of fish impediments.

Both Murphy and Pomeroy are active diversions with antiquated fish ladders and other foibles that block or limit access to more than 100 miles of spawning and rearing habitat for wild steelhead and salmon, including threatened wild coho salmon, according to ODFW.

No plans are in the works for removing or modifying either structure, and their location outside of Oregon's dubious Top 10 fish-killers means they likely won't get funding priority over higher-rated structures.

But that doesn't keep fish-passage advocates from hoping. The Rogue Basin has seen four dams removed in six years solely in the name of helping wild fish.

"I'd like the pace of which we're improving fish passage on the Rogue to continue, but I can't predict it will," says Jay Doino, an ODFW fish biologist in the agency's Central Point office. "The statewide list does provide a good framework for how to move forward."

It's also a framework for picking a fight with Baertschiger and the other 37 patrons of the Murphy Ditch Association who collectively irrigate 311 acres using the dam's diversion on a water right dating back to 1902.

"There's no reason to take that dam out," Baertschiger says. "They'll get a lot of resistance if they try that."

ODFW is required by state law to identify and prioritize fish-passage barriers, and the law requires the list to be updated every five years.

ODFW created its first fish-impediment list in 2007, when each Oregon river basin was given only one major priority for consideration in the Top 10. For the Rogue Basin, it was Gold Ray Dam, which was removed from the Rogue River near Gold Hill in 2010.

Wimer and Fielder dams weren't on that original list because of Gold Ray Dam's priority, says Ken Loffink, ODFW's assistant fish-passage coordinator. Nor was Savage Rapids Dam, which was removed from the Rogue in 2009, because barriers already in the pipeline for removal were intentionally left off the list.

For the 2013 list, Loffink says agency biologists wanted to expand the list to capture as many high-priority sites as possible, and the two Evans Creek dams reached the Top 10 at that time on a list that identifies and ranks more than 200 barriers.

Priority is based on myriad factors, including the number and status of anadromous fish impacted, the amount of habitat opened by the dam's removal or modification, and whether any of the fish in the stream have federal Endangered Species Act protection.

While landing on the list can put the public cross-hairs on those projects, it also can lead to public dollars to make them more fish-friendly. The four dams removed from the Rogue Basin since 2009 were all funded by a mix of state, federal and private money.

Pomeroy and Murphy dams are currently used to deliver irrigation water to water-rights owners, making them different from the abandoned and unused Gold Ray, Wimer and Fielder dams, Doino says.

Pomeroy spans the Illinois River and diverts up to 11.66 cubic feet per second of water to the dam's owner and sole user — the more than 1,600-acre Q Bar X Ranch, records show. The diversion is based on Illinois River water rights dating back to 1898, says Kathy Smith, the state watermaster for Josephine County.

Any improvements could range from dam modifications or a plan similar to Savage Rapids Dam, in which the structure was removed and replaced by pumps to deliver irrigation water, Doino says.

Any work would have to be done in concert with the dams' owners, who could face federal requirements to improve passage on their own or with government partnerships.

In all, Oregon has more than 27,800 documented artificial obstructions to fish passage. More than 23,000 of those do not provide an adequate way for native fish to make it past them. Repairs can range from screening diversions, modifying dams or rebuilding troublesome culverts.

Baertschiger says he believes the current fish screens and ladder provide migrating salmon with all they need from this structure 13 miles from the Applegate's confluence with the Rogue River.

"Our biggest problem is keeping kids out of here," Baertschiger says. "Hopefully, we'll never get in the Top 10."

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

Murphy Dam, on the Applegate River, will become one of the two worst impediments to wild salmon movement in the Rogue Basin after the removals of Wimer and Fielder dams from Evans Creek are completed this summer. Mail Tribune / Jamie Lusch
Herman Baertschiger