Some dams self-destruct

  The Oregon Natural Resource Council's 18-dam "hit list" is already growing shorter. An Oregon irrigation district voted Jan. 5 to remove the Savage Rapids Dam on the Rogue River.


"This is not the decision our hearts want to make," Grants Pass Irrigation District board member Catherine Davis told the Associated Press, "but it's the decision that our intellect requires of us."


The district decided it would be less expensive to scrap the worn-out dam than to buy replacement parts. Installing new fish ladders and new turbines to power the current pumps would cost slightly more than razing the 72-year-old dam, restoring the area, installing new irrigation pumps and buying electricity for the pumps, according to a consulting firm.


Removing Savage Rapids Dam will save fish as well as money. Fisheries biologists estimate that 27,000 more chinook and coho salmon will spawn above the dam site each year when the dam is removed, perhaps saving the fish from endangered status.


Savage Rapids Dam may be a harbinger of future dam removals, says Jim Middaugh, staffer with the Oregon Natural Resources Council. "It shows that removing a dam doesn't mean that the world comes to an end."


Elk Creek, the final dam of a three-dam flood control project on a tributary to the Rogue, is another targeted by ONRC. Environmentalists legally challenged the dam's construction in 1986, and forced the Corps to stop work until it completed a supplemental environmental impact statement. The study, completed in 1992, called for the dam to be built without a reservoir, except during floods, to protect fish spawning habitat.


Federal Judge James Burns must now decide whether to lift the construction injunction or order the Corps to rip out the dam to protect coho salmon and steelhead trout migrating from the Rogue.


Judge Burns said he hoped to reach a decision by the end of 1993. Until he issues a decision, the Corps is trapping and hauling fish around the unfinished dam.


Like Savage Rapids, Elk Creek Dam would be cheap to remove. The Corps says it has already invested more than $100 million in the dam's construction and needs another $70 million-$80 million to complete the project. But if the dam is completed, it will return less than two-thirds of the money invested in construction, reports the General Accounting Office.


Only $10 million-$20 million would be needed to remove the structure.


Even with the obvious economic and environmental benefits of taking down antiquated or incomplete dams like Savage Rapids and Elk Creek, they may not fall quickly, or at all.


In voting to remove the Savage Rapids Dam, the irrigation district demanded the government meet 11 conditions to keep the district financially solvent. Those conditions may not be met for at least three to six years, says Bob Hunter, president of WaterWatch.


Middaugh says Sen. Mark Hatfield, R.-Ore., could stymie efforts to take down Elk Creek Dam no matter what the federal judge decides. "Savage Rapids sets a precedent," says Hunter, "but every dam is unique."


* Bryan Foster, HCN intern