TOKETEE, Ore. (AP) — The long debate about whether to remove the Soda Springs Dam has ended with the construction of a ladder that salmon and steelhead are already using to reach a portion of the North Umpqua River that fish haven't traveled for 60 years.
Federal regulators in 2003 renewed PacifiCorp's license to operate the dam east of Roseburg for the next 35 years. The utility, however, had to build a fish passage.
Monte Garrett, who led the $60 million project for PacifiCorp, said the fish ladder balances competing interests. The dam will continue to produce hydroelectricity while the ladder enhances fish runs.
"Clearly, the studies showed that the best thing for the fish is to not have the dam here, but on balance the best thing for the fish and renewable energy is to have the dam in place but have a fish passage," he told the News-Review of Roseburg (http://is.gd/sF8e4J).
The Soda Springs Dam was opened in 1952 as part of the North Umpqua Hydroelectric Project, a network of generators in the Umpqua National Forest that creates enough power for 40,000 homes.
The dam regulates the natural flow of the river to generate electricity during times of peak demand, but also prevented fish from swimming upstream to historic spawning grounds. Conservation groups pushed for the dam's removal, contending it not only blocks spawning grounds, but also keeps gravel and woody debris from replenishing downstream spawning beds.
Chinook and coho salmon, steelhead, trout and Pacific lamprey are expected to use the 600-foot passage to traverse the dam, an obstacle fish encounter after swimming 180 miles from the Pacific Ocean to spawn.
Workers finishing the project this month reported seeing large fish swimming upstream of the dam. Salmon have been spotted spawning above the dam near the confluence with Fish Creek.
"Coho salmon have already made it up the ladder," said Todd Weekly, a contractor hired by PacifiCorp. "As soon as we opened it up, we saw them a mile and half up (from the dam) the next day."
A yearlong evaluation will be conducted to make sure fish are making it through the passage's 59 compartments, PacifiCorp aquatic scientist Rich Grost said. The company will continue monitoring the ladder's success for the next 24 years.
PacifiCorp estimates the fish ladder will increase adult populations on the river by between 200 and 600 chinook salmon and steelhead.
While impressed with the engineering feat that made the Soda Springs fish ladder possible, conservationists express lingering skepticism.
"I think the best thing would be to take the dam out," said Stan Vejtasa, conservation chairman for the Umpqua Valley Audubon Society. "If they knew how much (the fish ladder) would have cost, they wouldn't have kept the dam."
Information from: The News-Review, http://www.nrtoday.com
Copyright 2012 The Associated Press