Stimulus spurs county on Gold Ray Dam removal

Jackson County officials plan to seek $5 million from the federal stimulus package to help fast-track the possible removal of 105-year-old Gold Ray Dam from the Rogue River as early as the summer of 2010.

If they secure the grant, county officials believe they can complete the environmental studies, conclude their public outreach and secure the permits to begin removing the dam within the next 15 months — at least two years ahead of previous schedules.

The former hydroelectric dam that has sat idle near Gold Hill for 37 years is listed as one of Oregon's top 10 impediments to wild salmon and steelhead.

When added to last year's removal of the Gold Hill diversion dam and this summer's scheduled removal of Savage Rapids Dam, Gold Ray's removal would create 57 miles of free-flowing Rogue from just below Lost Creek dam to the sea.

"It's really a great opportunity to get some of that stimulus money, but also do something good for the Rogue River," says WaterWatch attorney Bob Hunter, who is part of a county committee working on the dam issue.

Completing the fast schedule, however, assumes that no new obstacles surface. Possible pitfalls could include pollutants in upstream sediment, snags in dealing with upstream wetlands or even a broad public outcry against those plans, which could trigger more studies and put removal on hold.

"If there's a hiccup, it could throw everything off," Hunter says. "There's no guarantee that something might come up in the environmental review that might cause a delay."

The county, which owns the dam and wants out of liability for it, has been working on how to deal with the dam in recent years, but there has been no funding source for removing it.

But the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act includes about $170 million earmarked to NOAA-Fisheries strictly for coastal and marine habitat restoration projects.

Applicants must have "shovel-ready" projects, such as dam removals, that can put people to work and be done within 18 months.

The grant would allow the county to complete the environmental studies and public outreach simultaneously instead of one at a time, thus bumping up the timeline, said Steve Mason, a contractor hired by the county to work on its dam issues.

If the studies and public reviews required through the National Environmental Policy Act are conducted one at a time, removal of the 35-foot-tall dam would not be possible until 2012 at best, Mason said.

"This would allow us to do them concurrently instead of consecutively," Mason said.

The county, however, has not determined that removing the dam is its ultimate fate, though removing it is likely to cost significantly less than buttressing the structure and retooling its aged fish ladder, said Lin Bernhardt, the county's natural resources manager.

"It's not a foregone conclusions," Bernhardt said. "If our work leads us to dam removal, then we have that money secured."

To meet those faster deadlines, the county and its partners in the project plan to conduct an environmental assessment of all the potential impacts that dam removal would generate, Mason said.

Environmental assessments generally are less broad and require less time to complete than large studies called environmental impact statements.

Ken Phippin, chief of NOAA-Fisheries' Southwest Oregon Branch in Roseburg, said the general lack of controversy, support from the county and the positive environmental impacts to salmon — including threatened wild coho salmon — make it a candidate for the lesser study regime.

"I think it has attributes that could lead itself to an EA," Phippin said.

If studies on the sediment show it contains contaminants, then it likely would trigger more studies and planning on how to deal with them.

"Definitely, the sediment test is going to be a big (factor) in deciding as to whether it's an EA or an EIS," Phippin said. "It's always a tricky question."

The federal Bureau of Reclamation completed an EIS before removing Savage Rapids Dam. Smaller EAs were conducted before the Gold Hill Diversion Dam was removed last year and Elk Creek Dam was notched last fall.

Hunter said he believes studies conducted for those projects — on impacts to the Rogue and its fish — can be used for Gold Ray Dam's environmental reviews.

"We feel, because of where we are, that we have a chance to do the complete environmental review and get it done in 2010," Hunter said.

Bernhardt said the county plans to provide plenty of opportunities for public involvement in the studies.

Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 776-4470, or e-mail mfreeman@mailtribune.com.

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