Boulders and dirt are placed in the Rogue River for the construction of a coffer dam above Gold Ray Dam Thursday. - Jamie Lusch

Gold Ray Dam removal halted

Work to demolish Gold Ray Dam could be delayed a month or more as Jackson County grapples with a group of dam supporters over whether removing the 106-year-old structure would illegally alter the Rogue River's floodplain or violate county land-use rules.

The state Land Use Board of Appeals on Friday ordered demolition work halted at the dam while it looks into an appeal by opponents who argued that the county violated its own land-use rules by proceeding with the project without properly considering land-use implications.

In that case, the county has argued that no rules were violated and that LUBA has no jurisdiction over Gold Ray Dam's fate, in part because county commissioners acted as a landowner in this case and not as a regulator of land-use rules.

Opponents of the dam's removal also have appealed the county's issuance of a county permit that declares removing the dam would not alter the Rogue's floodplain.

The flood-plain appeal will require a hearings officer to conduct a hearing on the matter, which could take until the end of July to settle, said John Vial, the county's roads and parks director, who is spearheading the $5.6 million dam-removal project.

Vial said demolition would not begin until the hearings process plays out, leaving crews idle. "There will be a time period when we'll basically have to shut the project down," Vial said. "We feel very confident we'll prevail, but we need to slow down until then."

The appeals were filed by a collection of landowners who maintain that removing the dam would illegally destroy wetlands and habitat used by threatened species, as well as compromise downstream water quality and destroy a dam and powerhouse unique in its historical significance.

"It really is a historic curio that's either worth saving or not," said Jack Swift, a Grants Pass attorney representing the appellants on the floodplain appeal. "If they demolish it, then they're violating the law and they can sit back and thumb their noses at us.

"Can we get it stopped?" Swift said. "All we can do is try."

Since demolition preparations began June 15, Slayden Construction Group crews have done only work that, Vial said, would not impact the floodplain and would be reversible should the county lose the appeal.

So far, that has meant partial construction of an earthen coffer dam upstream of the dam's south side. That temporary dam will allow the stretch of river just upstream of Gold Ray Dam to be drained so workers can remove the original timbered structure that has spanned the Rogue near Gold Hill since 1904, as well as the concrete dam poured to fortify those timbers in 1941.

Vial said other work on the immediate schedule could include removal of the abandoned powerhouse on the Rogue's north bank, which has been inoperable since Pacific Power deeded the structure to the county in 1972.

Slayden crews also could build the interpretive kiosk that will house one of the powerhouse's old turbines and generators as part of mitigation for the loss of the historic structure there, Vial said.

But the bulk of the work will remain on hold while the floodplain issue and LUBA appeal are settled, Vial said.

"The bottom line is, they're going to run out of work pretty quickly and there will be a shutdown for a while," Vial said.

A $5 million federal stimulus grant that has bankrolled the majority of the project was set to run out Oct. 1. The county has received permits allowing in-stream work to continue into October to ensure the demolition and associated habitat work get completed this fall, Vial said.

Vial said Slayden officials have expressed "concern" that delays will compress an already tight demolition schedule, but they remain confident they can get the work done under the deadline.

Swift said he expected an appeal of the hearings officer's decision regardless of which side wins. Swift said he expected the issue to land in court before it is settled.

Vial said the county will wait until the hearings officer's decision to determine whether demolition should proceed, saying the wording of the ruling likely will be key.

Plans call for first removing the southern section of the dam, then building a second coffer dam on the north side before removing that section.

County officials in May chose removal as the best and least expensive option for the dam. If the county does not remove the dam, it is financially liable for improving the dam's antiquated fish ladder, which does not meet federal standards.

An environmental assessment done through NOAA-Fisheries considered an option to fix the dam, repair the fish ladder and build a new powerhouse to restore Gold Ray Dam to its hydropower heyday.

But that option was dismissed by the commissioners because of its $69.7 million price tag and state laws that ban new hydropower plants on much of the Rogue.

Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470, or e-mail at

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