Locals stand behind an aging dam

  • Savage Rapids Dam on the Rogue River

    Bob Hunter photo

For years, irrigators who benefit from the Savage Rapids Dam on the Rogue River in southern Oregon have resisted removal of the salmon-blocking structure. In the past, when the district's board members agreed to removal, local voters removed those members. Now, irrigators have won another reprieve from federal and state pressure, thanks to a court ruling that will allow them to take this summer's water out of the reservoir behind the dam without committing to removal.

The dam has been a political hot potato for well over a decade, though last year's listing of coho salmon as threatened in southern Oregon escalated the debate (HCN, 5/12/97).

The National Marine Fisheries Service estimates that 10 to 15 percent of the juvenile coho in the Rogue River die in the dam's antiquated fish ladder each year.

"It can't be described as anything but god-awful," says Bernie Moore, a Medford, Ore., attorney and member of a statewide task force on Savage Rapids Dam. "It's just a meat-grinder for downstream fish."

But the reservoir provides water to about 7,400 small farmers, nurseries and private citizens in the area, most of whom irrigate an acre or less of land. In addition to the irrigators, some lakeside residents and recreationists oppose the removal of the dam and its long, narrow reservoir, which provides the only flatwater recreation in the Grants Pass area.

After the Grants Pass Irrigation District's board of directors yielded to pressure from the state of Oregon and signed on to a dam-removal plan in early 1994, board members supporting the plan were defeated in the next election.

The chairman of the next board, Tom McMurray, also paid a political price. He was recalled in 1997 when the listing of the coho salmon convinced him to back the removal plan. The majority of the current board favors keeping Savage Rapids Dam, although board chairman Dennis Becklin says he remains neutral on the issue.

Becklin says the board can't support dam removal until conditions are met, including full federal funding for the installation and maintenance of a pumping system once the dam is gone.

"I will not settle until we get a comprehensive solution that covers all the objectives - caring for the needs of the irrigation district, the needs of our patrons and the needs of the river," he says.

Becklin is also concerned about the release of toxic sediments from the reservoir if the dam is removed. An earlier Bureau of Reclamation study showed no toxic materials in the upper layers of sediment, but Becklin has commissioned a study of the deeper sediments.

"He's had one purpose only from the start and that's to save the dam," responds Bob Hunter, a staff attorney with the Portland-based environmental group WaterWatch. "If this was an agricultural district that was actually making money off irrigation, they'd be more concerned with just getting water instead of saving a piece of concrete."

The federal Fisheries Service took the Grants Pass Irrigation District to court in April, seeking to stop any water diversion until the district agrees to remove the dam. On June 3, District Judge Michael Hogan approved a plan for this irrigation season, requiring some dam modifications but allowing diversion to take place until July 15 without a plan for dam removal.

Dam removal "is an issue for another day," Judge Hogan told the court.

Meanwhile, the irrigation district also faces a challenge to its water rights at the state level. Concerned about the dam's effect on native fish, the state of Oregon threatened in 1994 to take away about one-third of the irrigation district's water rights - rights essential to the efficient operation of the irrigation system - unless the district made a firm commitment to removing the dam. Then, in late March of this year, the state water resources commission voted to cancel the district's rights, a decision which could be made final in November.

Not all Grants Pass residents oppose dam removal. A 30-member group of irrigators called Citizens for Responsible Irrigation worries that mounting legal costs will bankrupt the irrigation district.

"They aren't acting in the best interests of the community," says the group's founder, Judy Gove. The irrigation board, she says, is "dealing with the problem in an emotional way."

Former irrigation board chairman Tom McMurray adds, "It's getting pretty spendy to hold this dam together," especially since resolution may be a long way off.

"This has become so polarized between the dam-huggers and the fish-huggers," he says, "that nobody is willing to give anything."

- Michelle Nijhuis, HCN reporter

You can contact ...

* Grants Pass Irrigation District, 541/476-2582;

* National Marine Fisheries Service, 503/230-5400;

* WaterWatch of Oregon, 503/295-4039.