In the wake of failed efforts to broker the voluntary removal of the Rogue Basin’s defunct Fielder Dam, WaterWatch of Oregon filed suit in U.S. District Court today, contending that the dam harms threatened coho salmon in violation of the Endangered Species Act. The river conservation organization, represented by Earthjustice attorneys, also asserts that the landowners have a duty under state law to provide adequate fish passage at the 25-foot-high dam, or remove it. WaterWatch is seeking a court order to resolve these issues.
“We can’t afford to wait year after year while this dam continues to harm the Rogue’s irreplaceable salmon and steelhead runs,” said Bob Hunter, WaterWatch board member. “We spent considerable time and effort working with the dam owners to try to arrange a voluntary removal at no cost to them. Unfortunately, that work did not result in an agreement, and we have little choice left but to initiate litigation.”
Completely spanning Evans Creek three miles upstream of its confluence with the Rogue River, Fielder Dam made headlines recently after Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife officials ranked the 79-year-old structure among the top ten most significant fish barriers on Oregon’s Statewide Fish Passage Priority List. Prior to the listing, numerous biologists had concluded that the dam’s outdated fish ladder is inadequate, and blocks or impedes passage of coho salmon, fall chinook salmon, summer and winter steelhead, Pacific lamprey, suckers, and cutthroat trout. In addition, state and federal agencies have identified Evans Creek, and restoring access to high quality fish habitat in its upper reaches, as important to the recovery of threatened coho.
“We’re asking the court to protect these fish populations by enforcing existing law that has been on the books for quite some time,” said Janette Brimmer, attorney with Earthjustice. “There’s no excuse for allowing this obsolete dam to continue killing struggling salmon while so many people and organizations invest their resources to protect and restore salmon elsewhere in the basin.”
Government agencies, political leaders, and nonprofit groups have tried unsuccessfully to negotiate a voluntary removal of Fielder Dam over the last ten years. WaterWatch staff in particular made a concerted effort with the dam’s owners over the last year. The conservation group has played a leading role in achieving removal of other Rogue Basin dams listed on previous editions of the Statewide Fish Passage Priority List, including Savage Rapids Dam and Gold Ray Dam.
“The Rogue Basin has already seen significant benefits from previous dam removals,” said Jim McCarthy, Southern Oregon Program Manager for WaterWatch. “We’re confident that restoring this key salmon-bearing tributary will benefit the Rogue’s prized fish runs, as well as the people and businesses throughout our region who depend on healthy populations of Rogue salmon and steelhead.”
Originally built solely for irrigation diversion in 1934, Fielder Dam fell into disuse in the 1980s. Today, no one uses the dam to divert water for irrigation, and no storage rights were ever issued to maintain the reservoir created by the dam.