One more dam on the hit list

You can almost paint the picture in your mind: The Rogue River, flowing free from Lost Creek Lake to the Pacific Ocean. No concrete barriers, no fish ladders, just a river tumbling over rocks and winding through canyons and valleys on its way to the sea.

That picture would have been hard to imagine a decade ago. But it's coming into focus now. Savage Rapids Dam will be gone within two years, possibly sooner, bringing to a conclusion a long fight over the biggest impediment to fish passage on the Rogue. Work on dismantling Gold Hill's small water diversion dam is also scheduled to begin next summer.

Now the discussion has turned in earnest to Gold Ray Dam, as it should. The 35-foot-tall dam, situated four to five miles above Gold Hill, was built in 1904, first using logs and then concrete. Its original purpose was to provide electrical generation, but that use ended in 1972 when it was determined to no longer be cost-effective.

So the turbines are gone, but the dam remains. Seems like a no-brainer for removal, right? Well, yes, but as these things go, it's not quite that simple.

Ironically, the biggest potential stumbling block to removing the dam is an environmental concern. Gold Ray sits just downstream from the confluence of Bear Creek and the Rogue River and its backwaters have created a wetlands area rich in bird life and other wildlife. The wetlands area may have been created artificially, but it exists nonetheless and must be taken into consideration when removal is discussed.

Fortunately, although it's very early in the process, the environmental concerns about the dam seem to be winning out over concerns about the loss of wetlands. It's not entirely clear how much of the wetlands would be lost or if there's an option for preserving that area as is or offsetting the loss of habitat. It is clear that the dam is a significant barrier, both to fish and to human passage on the river.

That second factor should not be overlooked. Removal of the dam not only clears the way for salmon and steelhead to make their way to the upper Rogue, it also would expand the recreation and tourism opportunities along the river. Imagine float trips from Touvelle Park to Gold Hill — or any two points between Lost Creek and the Pacific. It opens all sorts of options for everyone from the casual rafter to the business offering guided fishing trips.

This will be no quick process — for starters, at this point there is no money set aside for removing Gold Ray. But it is a process that should be pushed forward as quickly as possible.

The Rogue River is a jewel in our midst. Removing a dam that serves no real purpose seems like an obvious step toward making that jewel shine even more brightly.

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