Three decades ago, the idea of removing dams for the benefit of fish and rivers conflicted with widely held values and beliefs. For many, dams were – and for some, still remain – symbols of progress and monuments to the control of nature. Today, the growing number of successful removals of obsolete dams on fish-bearing streams has itself become a celebrated symbol of progress, and represents a fundamental change in our relationship with rivers. Thanks in large part to the patience, determination, and support of many partners in the Rogue River Basin many years, WaterWatch of Oregon has played a significant role in this profound societal change, all while undertaking one of the most successful dam removal and river restoration campaigns in the United States.
It is now well established that dams negatively affect streamflows, can harm and kill migratory fish, and seriously degrade aquatic habitat and the natural productivity of our rivers. It has also been well established that all dams have an expiration date – a time when they will become too costly economically and ecologically to justify their continued existence. That this is now widely understood – alongside public awareness that dam removals provide real benefits to rivers, fish, and local communities – is a major achievement for river conservation.
In the Rogue Basin, we’ve worked to remove Savage Rapids, Gold Hill, and Gold Ray dams on the mainstem Rogue, converted a 517 million-gallon-per-day water right to an instream water right to protect mainstem river flows forever, and helped achieve the notching of Elk Creek Dam on a key spawning tributary. Together, we’ve reestablished one of the longest reaches of free-flowing river in the West – 157 miles – and protected the water necessary to ensure the river’s health for future generations.
These amazing results not only benefit the Rogue’s fish populations, but enhance fishing, boating, and other recreational opportunities while supporting the economy of southern and coastal Oregon. At the same time, WaterWatch has also worked to improve conditions at existing dams by helping to create statewide fish friendly passage standards at dams of all types.
Of course, much work remains. Now that many of the larger fish barriers on the mainstem Rogue River have come down, the restoration focus of WaterWatch and partners has shifted to tributary streams critical to salmon and steelhead abundance. Fielder and Wimer dams on Evans Creek, an important Rogue tributary, were removed in 2015. Identified in 2013 by state wildlife officials as two of the ten most harmful fish passage barriers in Oregon, these obsolete irrigation dams reduced access to up to 70 miles of excellent habitat for steelhead and salmon.
And there’s more good news for fish – additional tributary dam removal projects are coming up!
Your help makes these results possible. Thanks to you, removing dams has become a definition of progress. In the coming years, we’ll continue to work together to reduce the harm of dams, and see more of the Rogue’s spectacular streams running free. To read more about WaterWatch’s work, visit https://waterwatch.org/