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What's The Deal With Dam Removals?

In the past decade, several high-profile dam removals have happened in the Northwest. The Marmot Dam on the Sandy River in Oregon was demolished in 2007. Three dams along the main stem of Oregon’s Rogue River came down between 2008 and 2010. Crews blew apart the Condit Dam on the White Salmon River in Washington in 2011. That same year, the largest dam removal project in North America began on Washington’s Elwha River, with the removal of two massive structures.

Not all dams are created equally. Not all pose insurmountable problems for migrating fish. But dams can fundamentally change large swaths of river ecosystems. Age, disuse and advances in technology have made many dams in the Northwest expensive to upkeep and sometimes obsolete. And a shift in how we think of dams as a society is currently underway.

EarthFix’s Jes Burns has been reporting on dam removals in Southern Oregon. As part of that project, she produced this primer with photographer/editor Kerin Sharma on the broader issue of dam removal in the Northwest.

Wimer and Fielder Dam Removal Update:

Demolition of Wimer Dam officially wrapped up in late July. This was the smaller and more upstream of the two structures on Evans Creek, a tributary of the Rogue River.

READmore about the removal of the Evans Creek dam removal projects: 2 Of Oregon's Worst Dams For Fish Are Coming Down

Fielder Dam is now down, but construction crews are still on-site doing final concrete and debris removal, as well as cleanup and stream bank restoration work. The project is expected to be completed by the end of August.

Although work agreements with landowners along Evans Creek were negotiated and signed several years back, the project has still been met resistance from some local residents. Dam removal can be a divisive issue, especially when private property rights are involved.

Landowners told the Grants Pass Daily Courier they felt strong-armed into signing the original agreements, and complained the compensation offered did not cover the hit to their property values. The paper reports a family member of one of the Fielder Dam landowners sat down in the road and blocked demolition crews for several hours.

The conservation group WaterWatch negotiated the dam-removal agreements with landowners. It’s position: dams are violating the Endangered Species Act by not providing adequate fish passage for threatened coho salmon and that the landowners are liable for the damage caused. The project was paid for through a combination of grants and privately raised funds, and at no direct cost to the property owners.

Copyright 2020 EarthFix.

Jes Burns is a reporter for OPB's Science & Environment unit. Jes has a degree in English literature from Duke University and a master's degree from the University of Oregon's School of Journalism and Communications.