On numerous occasions over the last five years the Grants Pass Irrigation District has announced a revised unilateral plan to remove Savage Rapids Dam in southern Oregon. The dam, built in the early part of this century, is located along the mainstem of the Rogue River near the town of Grants Pass, Oregon. The dam does not produce electricity, and its sole function is to provide water for the Grants Pass Irrigation District (GPID). A hydraulic pump on the north side of the dam and a gravity feed diversion on the south side provide irrigation water for nearby suburban lawns and gardens.
This new plan, like others proposed before it, is based upon various efforts to secure Federal legislation that would protect the vital interests of its customers and the greater Grants Pass Community. GPID continues to believe however, based on information gathered from its consulting biologists, that removal of the Dam is not necessary to protect salmon and steelhead runs in the Rogue River. Despite this continual contention, it had voted as early as 1994 to remove the dam.
Regardless of previous debates and legal proceedings, over a decade ago the Grants Pass Irrigation District had been warned that the dam kills fish and the passage for both juvenile and adult salmon needs to be fixed. In fact, for years, Savage Rapids Dam has been known as a “fish killer.” Inadequate screens on the hydraulic pump trap juvenile salmon and steelhead on their downstream migration to the ocean. Fish are also drawn into the irrigation ditches. Adult fish have difficulty negotiating the dam’s antiquated and ineffective fish ladders.
Working with GPID and the Bureau of Reclamation, the ecological group WaterWatch of Oregon, with the support of other conservation groups, developed a plan to remove the dam and install electric pumps to serve the district patrons. Studies revealed that removal of the dam was significantly less costly than fixing the fish passage problems at the dam. “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
In an effort to thwart dam removal efforts, GPID attempted but failed to obtain permission to add generators to the dam in 1997. No matter, the District has prepared to go forward yet again with a proposal to remove Savage Rapids Dam only in the event that it can obtain legislation sufficiently protective of the irrigation district and the surrounding community. Some of GPID’s key provisions are: the Federal government should take full responsibility for and pay the full costs of dam removal and installation of new pumping facilities; pumping facilities would be installed and operated prior to the demolition; and funding would be provided for installation of electrical power transmission lines, substations and other electrical infrastructure required to provide electrical power for operation of the pumping plants.
While GPID contends that environmentalists and government agencies did not actually conduct any fish kill studies at Savage Rapids Dam and the 22% fish kill rate claimed is unsubstantiated and totally inaccurate, the District believes, according to its biological consultant, Steven P. Cramer and Associates, that fish kill at Savage Rapids Dam is so small as to be nearly immeasurable, probably less that 0.1%. GPID further contends that fish passage has been increased at the dam due to the
numerous improvements it has made during recent years. These
include: $100,000 in new fish screens; revised placement of stoplogs to direct water flow; fish netting installed along the sides of the south fish ladder to prevent adult fish from jumping out of the fish ladder; and new floodlights to attract downstream migrating juvenile fish away from the turbine intakes for safe passage over the dam crest–to name just a few improvements.
In addition, for the first time in 40 years, the north fish ladder was opened for year-round use instead of just during the irrigation season, and highly qualified fisheries biologists were hired to trap, count, and document both downstream and upstream fish passage to determine actual fish mortality. Video cameras were also used throughout the 1999 irrigation season and documented for the first time how fish are easily able to travel up both the north and south fish ladders and sediment releases from the dam were minimized to enhance sportfishing downstream from the dam.
Despite GPID’s belief that Savage Rapids Dam is more than adequate to continually serve the community without harm to salmon or other fish wildlife, it agreed to holding a public meeting on December 6, 1999, at the Grants Pass High School Performing Arts Center. At the meeting patrons and members of the public were able to express their opinions on the District’s proposed plan. Later, the District Board voted on a resolution to adopt the proposal and the County has provided for a mail-in vote of District patrons that was held on January 18, 2000, to ratify the Board’s decision to close the dam. But unfortunately, nothing was resolved in the vote. But only to await more information and statistics to be provided.
So the issue currently at hand is not if the dam will be shut down and dismantled, but exactly when; and how provisions will be put into place to provide continual service to local residents. More importantly, both legislators and patrons will learn soon enough if the cost of protecting salmon, steelhead and other fish wildlife will be worth what many here consider the loss of a historical treasure: the seventy-eight year old Savage Rapids Dam.