After a decade of political discord and legal brawls with conservationists, an Oregon irrigation district has agreed to breach the Savage Rapids Dam (HCN, 6/22/98: Locals stand behind an aging dam). The dam's sole function is to provide irrigation water from the Rogue River to local farmers, but according to federal agencies, it kills more salmon and steelhead than any other barrier in the river.
The agreement allows continued irrigation from the Rogue, but by 2005, the Grants Pass Irrigation District must convert to pumps to draw the water, so the dam can be removed the following year. In exchange, the deal dissolves all three lawsuits against the district.
Dan Shepard, manager of the district, says the exorbitant costs of fighting litigation against the district, combined with fees to repair and retrofit the 80-year-old dam with safer fish ladders and screens, swayed 63 percent of farmers in a January 2000 referendum to vote to remove the dam. "What they understood was their pocketbooks," says Shepard. "In the long run, pumps are a more efficient way to go."
Taking down the dam will also produce a "tremendous fishery benefit," says Bob Hunter of the environmental organization WaterWatch. Adult salmon and steelhead survival will increase by 22 percent, he says. That means close to 80,000 additional fish annually for commercial and recreational harvest, which is an economic mainstay of the region.
Now, conservation groups and the irrigation district are working together to secure from state and federal funds the $13 million-$14 million required for the project.