Removal of Savage Rapids Dam on the Rogue River

Savage Rapids Dam was a large dam, nearly 500-feet long and 39-feet high, owned and operated by the Grants Pass Irrigation District (GPID). Operations began in 1921, and it functioned entirely for water diversion for irrigation. It provided no flood control, power generation, or navigation functions.  Despite fish passage improvements that were made over the years, the dam’s operation negatively impacted five runs of Coho salmon and other anadromous fish listed under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).

The State of Oregon, its Water Resources Department, the Water Resources Commission, WaterWatch, Trout Unlimited, and other plaintiffs had successfully filed lawsuits challenging the District’s rights to divert water, resulting in removal of the District’s right to divert one third of its original water right. These legal actions threatened the survival of the District and provision of water to 7,000 water patrons. State and federal lawsuits and appeals made their way to Oregon’s Supreme Court in the late 1990s.

In 1998, Ball Janik LLP was contacted by a federal judge who was in conference with opposing parties with regard to resolution of the loss of GPID’s water right. Although we did not represent anyone involved with the dispute, the judge had contacted us because both sides of the long and complicated settlement negotiations had agreed that they would trust our advice with regard to federal law and the potential for federal support for a financial resolution that would allow removal of the dam without bankrupting the irrigation district. After providing information on Congressional and Administrative processes and timelines for action to the judge and the gathered parties, we were asked, and agreed to work on this matter.  Ultimately, a Consent Decree entered in federal court bound all parties to work together, but specifically bound GPID to hire and pay for a lobbyist to secure the needed federal legislation, and we were selected.   

The firm developed a multi-pronged strategy and implementation plan that involved: introduction and enactment of a law to provide federal authority for the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation to remove the dam; securing federal funding for dam removal and installation of an electric pumping plant; working with conservation and other groups to help secure private foundation support for dam removal; working with the State/OWEB on grant funds; and involving the Governor, State Legislators,  a multitude of state and national organizations, and U.S. Members of Congress on the entire strategy.

Throughout our work for GPID, we coordinated very closely with state and federal officials, multiple state and federal agencies (Governor, WRD, OWRC, OFWS, NMFS, USFW, U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, U.S. Department of the Interior, USDOJ, USACE and others.).  We also worked very closely with WaterWatch, TroutUnlimited, American Rivers, Curry Guides, and many other conservation, fishery, and environmental organizations. We secured the support of the Oregon Water Resources Congress and a somewhat neutral view from the Oregon Farm Bureau.

From 1998 to 2009, we succeeded in: getting bipartisan legislation introduced and enacted that provided federal authority and $39 million in funding for dam removal and pumping plant installation; assisted with state and private grant funding; secured sufficient federal funding early enough to help ensure extension of the terms of the Consent Decree’s original expiration date of 2005; construction and of the irrigation pumps and coffer dams in 2006; dam removal in October 2009; survival of GPID and provision of water to its patrons. 

It’s important to note that Ball Janik accomplished these difficult tasks in a bipartisan manner, with shifting majorities in Congress. We ultimately succeeded in getting President Bush to sign dam removal legislation (2003) and to put funds in his budget for dam removal – something many people thought would never happen.  We also wrote a provision in the legislation protecting GPID from high non-federal cost share.  Prior to succeeding in getting funds for the project put into the budget, we had managed to get several years of appropriated funds even without the support of the Administration.  In addition, we crafted a way to receive a $500,000 appropriation in FY’02 even before dam removal was authorized, at a time when federal policy was “no new starts”.  At key times in the long process, we rounded up support of key Republicans in the Oregon State Legislature, which was helpful in addressing concerns about dam removal.

The Savage Rapids Dam project was one of the largest dam removals ever accomplished in the United States.  Today, the beautiful Rogue River, one of the very first rivers designated as Wild & Scenic in the 1968 Act, is a much more welcome place for migrating salmon and steelhead and local farmers, and water patrons now have a modern source of irrigation water.


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