Corps solidifies Elk Creek notching timeline

Work toward notching half-built Elk Creek Dam could begin as early as next month as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers moves forward with plans to open fish passage at the abandoned structure along an upper Rogue River tributary.

The Corps' opponents, however, were not going down without a fight.

Corps officials expect to award a contract within the next two weeks for designing and notching the dam's base and restoring the creek bed at the site that has sat idle since lawsuits halted construction in 1987.

On Wednesday, the Corps released its final environmental study, which concludes that notching the dam is the best and least expensive long-term way to allow wild salmon and steelhead to swim unimpeded past the dam, 1.7 miles from Elk Creek's confluence with the Rogue.

Corps spokesman Scott Clemans said Wednesday that Corps engineers are studying bids for the design and construction of the notch, and plans are to award that contract later this month or early in February.

Clemans said preparation work could begin almost immediately, with the bulk of the notching done after June 15, the date when in-stream work can begin in Oregon salmon streams.

The Corps has about $11 million pending in its 2008 budget to notch the dam and restore part of Elk Creek's streambed. Plans were then to disband the 15-year-old program of trapping fish at the dam's base and hauling them upstream to spawning grounds.

But notch opponents such as Jackson County Commissioner C.W. Smith refused to see Wednesday's news as one of the last nails in the dam's coffin.

"We may not be legally able to stop them from notching it, but we don't need to support it," Smith said.

Smith said the commissioners hope at least to slow the Corps by demanding that the agency conduct a study on whether the dam's notching requires new flood-plain mapping on the Rogue.

Executive Order 11988 on federal floodplain management requires agencies to consider how their actions may encourage future development in flood plains and requires the agencies to minimize that development.

The dam rests within the Rogue's 100-year flood plain and Smith contends the Corps must do the assessment, which he said could delay notching indefinitely.

"If they're going to rechannel a mile of (Elk Creek) like they say, that's a floodplain issue," Smith said. "When anybody does anything to our tributaries, they have to notify the Corps. The Corps needs to follow the same regulations."

In its environmental assessment, Corps officials state the notching plans do not require a floodplain review.

The assessment states that the work is to restore Elk Creek's natural floodplain will not encourage future development and that the notch has no negative flood-control effects because the current project does not provide flood storage.

"Subtracting from zero doesn't change the equation at all," Clemans said.

"I find that pretty presumptuous on their part," Smith said. "What makes the Corps so special? I guess Katrina wasn't a big enough lesson for them."

Clemans said the Corps consulted with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which agreed with the Corps' conclusion.

George Miller, the Corps' Elk Creek project manager, did not return telephone calls seeking comment.

Smith said the county commissioners will discuss the Corps' position and the county could file suit to force the issue.

Corps officials said they received 316 written comments on the project, and 287 of those supported the notching.

Clemans said the Corps would not disclose how many firms bid on the project until the bid is rewarded.

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

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