Construction crews could start chipping 106-year-old Gold Ray Dam from the Rogue River as early as Friday after a federal judge Wednesday denied a request to halt all work on the project while a lawsuit filed by dam supporters winds through federal court.
U.S. District Court Judge Owen Panner lifted the nine-day shutdown of work on the dam after determining Wednesday that dam supporters were unlikely to win their civil rights suit against Jackson County, the dam's owner.
Panner also denied a request for preliminary injunction, allowing Slayden Construction Group crews to move forward with the $5.6 million project that was funded largely by a $5 million federal stimulus grant that sunsets in October.
Crews were expecting to finish, by the end of Thursday, a temporary earthen dam used to isolate the Rogue from the dam's south half and to funnel water over the north side, said John Vial, the county's roads and parks director spearheading the project.
Once water between the temporary dam and the concrete dam is drained, crews could begin removing pieces of the south side, load them onto rail cars and ship them away, Vial said.
Pieces to be removed include the hollow concrete dam built in 1941 and the original wooden crib dam still present beneath the water and muck just upstream of the concrete, Vial said.
Once removed, the earthen dam would be breached and the Rogue would flow through its original channel there, Vial said.
Similar work was planned later for the dam's north side, fish ladder and abandoned powerhouse, with the material trucked away, Vial said.
The dam's removal would open 157 miles of free-flowing Rogue for migrating salmon and boat traffic and remove what the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife rates as the worst dam impeding fish migration remaining in Oregon.
"The only thing this dam has done for 106 years is effectively kill wild salmon," said Pete Frost, attorney for a handful of conservation groups that signed on with the county as a codefendant in the case. "It's good for all of us that it will be gone."
Panner's ruling is the third to reject dam supporters' claims that pre-demolition work has been done either without necessary permits, against county land-use rules or based on a biased hearings-officer ruling.
"We've been told time and time again that we were in violation of law and doing things improperly," Vial said. "Now, on local, state and federal levels, those parties have agreed with us."
Grants Pass attorney Jack Swift, who represented dam supporters in those three cases, said this morning he had not yet seen Panner's ruling.
Swift said he likely will file a request in federal court for a permanent injunction, which would require dam supporters to all but win their suit against the county to obtain the injunction.
County Administrator Danny Jordan said county attorneys will seek to recoup any costs associated with the suit "to the extent available by law."
No financial estimates were available today, Jordan said.
In Wednesday's ruling, Panner rejected Swift's arguments that his clients were likely to win their case alleging the county violated their constitutional rights.
Swift argued that dam supporters were denied their right to due process in their appeal of a floodplain permit because county hearings officer Donald Rubenstein was hired and paid by the county even though the plaintiffs did not allege any specific instances of bias.
Panner also ruled supporters would face no irreparable harm should the dam be removed, that the benefits of demolition outweigh the risks of keeping it and that moving forward with demolition was in the public interest.
"We had to run the table on those four (points)," Swift said. "Seems like we didn't get past the first one."
Dam supporters still could appeal Rubenstein's ruling to the state Land Use Board of Appeals, where they already lost a land-use appeal involving the dam. Swift declined to say whether a LUBA appeal was planned.
In 1972, Pacific Power decommissioned the dam and powerhouse, which included some of the last rope-driven turbines in the West. The utility then deeded it to the county, which intended to build a park that never materialized.
In recent years, the county has been worried about the financial liability of the structures, particularly the antiquated fish ladder that does not meet state and federal standards.
County officials in May chose removing the dam as the best and least expensive option, leading to challenges from a handful of people who supported keeping it.
An environmental assessment done by the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration's fisheries division also 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.
The suit was filed on behalf of Charles Boyer of Eagle Point, Dalton Straus of Sams Valley and Angela and Randall Schock, who live immediately upstream of the dam's south end.
Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.