by Doug Larson

Sunday, August 3rd 2008


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Anyone seeking a perfect example of an outrageous pork barrel project should consider the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Elk Creek Dam in the Rogue River Basin. For nearly 20 years, the dam has been sitting unfinished, its deteriorating, roller-compacted concrete uglifying the once-beautiful Elk Creek Valley and blocking passage of Pacific salmon and steelhead.

Since 1992, the Corps has spent untold millions trapping migratory fish below the dam and trucking them upstream. According to the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, this effort not only has failed to restore steelhead in Elk Creek, but it has killed and injured coho salmon listed as an endangered species.

Unable to dither any longer, the Corps finally has agreed to spend about $8 million to breach the dam to allow fish passage. Blasting began on July 15 and will continue for about two months (Register-Guard, July 17).

Unfortunately, most of the dam will be left standing, perhaps forever. But some good may come from this: The half-baked dam and the devastated landscape around it will glaringly remind us of incalculable government waste and wrongheaded political ambition.

The Elk Creek project was a potential disaster from its beginning in 1962, when it was authorized by Congress along with two other Rogue Basin dams: Lost Creek and Applegate. Had it been finished, the dam would have contributed little, if anything, to flood control and other benefits in the Rogue Basin. Fisheries biologists regarded the dam as a “fish-killer.”

In addition to blocking fish passage and flooding ancient spawning grounds upstream, studies predicted that Elk Creek’s impounded water, discharged into the Rogue River about two miles downstream, would alter river temperatures, creating unfavorable conditions for fish production and survival. Highly turbid water would muddy the Rogue River during summer and possibly smother its gravelly, biologically essential riverbed.

Despite these environmental red flags, Sen. Mark Hatfield and other staunch supporters pushed mightily and endlessly on the Corps and Congress to get the dam built.

Opposition intensified during the 1970s, as studies began to show that Elk Creek Dam was not only an environmental and fiscal liability but was no longer needed. Construction began in 1971, and was halted in 1975 when Oregon’s governor and the Water Policy Review Board withdrew support. In 1985, Congressman Jim Weaver sought to have the dam de-authorized following a 1982 study by the then-General Accounting Office; the GAO concluded that the dam would return only 5 cents to 20 cents on the dollar in benefits.

Work resumed in 1986 after a new governor had approved the project and the board had reversed itself. Hatfield quickly obtained $33 million to continue construction.

But work again was halted in 1987 by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. The court ruled in favor of a lawsuit by the Oregon Natural Resources Council, which claimed that the project’s environmental impact statement was inadequate. The ruling left the dam partially built and U.S. taxpayers out $67 million — the entire amount for the first phase of construction.

The government appealed, and in 1989 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the EIS was adequate. But construction never resumed, due to continued opposition from Oregon’s governor, the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and state and federal fishery agencies. Additionally, U.S. District Judge James Burns ordered an injunction that barred work until environmental issues were resolved.

In January 1990, faced with contentious environmental issues and Burns’ injunction, Corps officials met in Portland to concoct a strategy for keeping the project alive. The minutes of the meeting were published in a memorandum intended for secret eyes only.

Apparently frustrated with the entire matter, the corps’ North Pacific Division commander, a brigadier general, hand-wrote a note at the bottom of the memorandum’s cover letter. It read: “Were the decision to be required today, I suspect I would recommend not resumption (of construction) but termination in a ‘mothball’ state.”

Somehow, the memo was leaked. The Oregon Natural Resources Council delivered a copy to Burns, who left intact the injunction. The Corps, traditionally loath to giving up on a project, decided to “mothball” the dam. By then, the dam had cost more than $100 million and was one-third complete.

In 1998, learning that Elk Creek Dam might be breached to allow fish passage, Congressman Bob Smith, a strong proponent of the dam, said: “If the fish can be protected, then it seems to me to be a horrible consequence to destroy an asset.” The Corps, true to its dam-building propensity, astutely assured Smith that enough of the dam would remain so that it could be completed in the future.

Those who dreamed of this future were rudely awakened by dam-busting explosions on July 15.

Douglas Larson, an independent scientist and writer, retired from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in 1991 as the Portland District’s limnologist and water-quality specialist. While employed by the corps, Larson was involved in preimpoundment water-quality and fishery studies of Elk Creek Dam, as well as limnological and fishery investigations at Lost Creek and Applegate reservoirs. Limnology is the scientific study of fresh waters, especially lakes and ponds.

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