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Fielder Dam and its antiquated fish ladder is targeted for removal from Evans Creek. Mail Tribune file photo

Evans Creek dams on track for removal this summer

ROGUE RIVER — Two of Oregon's worst wild fish barriers are on track to be jettisoned from Evans Creek this summer under a plan to open as much as 70 miles of prime spawning habitat for the Rogue River Basin's wild salmon and steelhead.

Project managers last week garnered a key state fish-passage permit that will help push other state and federal permits forward for removing the crumbling and abandoned Fielder and Wimer dams, which impede migrating wild salmon, including threatened wild coho.

Those permits must be secured before construction bids can be placed and a contractor hired to remove the dams during the summer period when work is allowed in wild-salmon streams.

"Everything's moving forward well to be able to do the removal this summer," said Bob Hunter of WaterWatch of Oregon, which has teamed with the Geos Institute and American Rivers to oversee the removal with the help of local conservation groups, angling clubs and state and federal agencies.

The key will be whether the Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board approves a $462,845 grant request to round out the estimated $671,000 needed to remove both dams, Hunter said.

OWEB staff have recommended to the full board that it approve the grant when it meets April 28 in Salem. The group already has secured $213,000 in federal grants and another $22,000 in in-kind services.

"We'll know a lot more by the end of this month whether we're moving forward," Hunter said.

The tight window is because demolition crews are allowed to work in streams such as Evans Creek only between June 15 and Aug. 31 under Oregon law to ensure minimal impacts on current fish runs. The back end of that in-stream work window can be extended at times for projects that are close to completion.

Wimer and Fielder dams, which date back more than 100 years, have such poorly functioning fish ladders that they rank among the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife's Top 10 for worst wild fish impediments in Oregon.

Fielder Dam's location and design regularly keeps wild salmon from venturing past its base, which is three miles from Evans Creek's confluence with the Rogue. Wild fish that get above Fielder Dam then must deal with Wimer Dam six miles farther upstream before reaching prime spawning habitat, which rarely happens, biologists say.

Removing the dams would create regular access to 16 miles of spawning habitat for wild fall chinook, 60 miles of spawning habitat for wild coho and more than 70 miles of wild steelhead spawning grounds, according to feasibility studies.

State and federal agencies have identified restoration of access to high-quality fish habitat in the upper reaches of the Evans Creek Basin as important to the recovery of wild coho, which are listed as threatened throughout Southern Oregon and Northern California — including the Rogue.

The two irrigation diversion dams were abandoned in the 1970s, and no active water rights are associated with them or the small reservoirs they impound.

Fielder Dam stands 19 feet tall, and its poor fish ladder begins with a 2-foot drop that often blocks passage in low-flow periods.

At 11 feet tall, Wimer Dam is smaller, but its fish ladder is even worse than Fielder's. Both ladders face away from the creek's regular flow over their tops, making the ladders difficult for fish to find, according to ODFW.

WaterWatch has hired River Design Group to oversee the studies and permitting. That group shepherded the 2009 removal of Savage Rapids Dam from the Rogue near the Jackson/Josephine county border and 2010's removal of Gold Ray Dam from the Rogue near Gold Hill.

Wimer and Fielder dams are on private property. WaterWatch has secured agreements with the landowners to remove the dams at no cost to them.

Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470 or mfreeman@mailtribune.com. Follow him at www.twitter.com/MTwriterFreeman.

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