The Jackson County Board of Commissioners voted Wednesday to remove 106-year-old Gold Ray Dam from the Rogue River this summer, saying the financial burden of keeping it is too much to bear for taxpayers.
In a unanimous vote after a brief discussion in Medford, the three commissioners for the first time formally chose the $5.6 million removal as the preferred alternative for a dam county officials bought for $1 almost 40 years ago.
The commissioners said using in-hand state and federal grants to remove the aged, worn structure with its antiquated fish ladder was better than buttressing the dam and fixing the ladder to the tune of at least $16 million of county money.
Having an environmental assessment in hand showing the dam's structural troubles and fish-ladder inadequacies means the status quo of a decommissioned dam was not an option for the commissioners.
That made each commissioner believe solving the county's dam woes with federal money was better than doing so through county coffers.
"I've never supported the removal of a dam in my life if it had any use," Commissioner Jack Walker said. "I'm struggling to come up with a positive.
"It's a very terrible spot for the taxpayers of this county," said Walker, who is running for re-election. "One way or the other, I think the dam needs to come out. One way or the other, we need to get rid of that liability."
By selecting dam removal, NOAA-Fisheries can finish the study and the county can garner the final state and federal permits needed to begin removing the dam and the abandoned powerhouse upstream of Gold Hill in mid-June.
If completed in late summer as planned, the project will restore 157 miles of free-flowing Rogue for the first time since the Ray brothers tamed the river to create the region's first hydropower plant in 1904.
"This has been a part of our community and our lives," Commissioner C.W. Smith told a sparse crowd during the board's 15 minutes of discussion.
Removing the dam was expected to cause no net loss of upstream wetlands when the Rogue returns to its pre-dam channel and a set of habitat projects are completed, according to the draft environmental assessment.
"This is a restoration project," Smith said. "It is restoring the river to its original path and course. Herein lies a historical significance that predates us."
County Roads and Parks Director John Vial, who spearheaded the project, said he expects to have the permits in hand before the June 15 start of the in-river work period allowed under state law.
Slayden Construction Group plans to build a temporary coffer dam upstream of the dam's southern edge and remove that part first, then divert water through the hole while creating a second coffer dam to finish the removal.
Unlike Slayden's work last fall on the Savage Rapids Dam 23 miles downstream, when only part of the dam was removed, the entire Gold Ray Dam and adjacent powerhouse will be removed.
The project is funded by a $5 million federal stimulus grant and a $1 million grant from the Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board.
The dam and powerhouse were decommissioned by Pacific Power when it deeded the structures to the county in 1972. If the county does not remove the dam, it is financially liable for improving the dam's antiquated fish ladder that does not meet federal standards.
The EA also considered an option to fix the dam, repair the fish ladder and build a new powerhouse to restore Gold Ray Dam to its hydropower heydays.
But that option was dismissed by the commissioners because of its $69.7 million price tag and current state laws that ban new hydropower plants on much of the Rogue.
The commissioners voted after Walker verbally jousted with dissenters who tried to skirt a public meeting law banning them from testifying about the dam by alluding to it without speaking directly about it during an open-microphone session.
Taking public comment on the announced agenda item would violate public meeting laws because the meeting was not publicized as a hearing, county counsel Frank Hammond told the crowd.
Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470, or e-mail at email@example.com.