By Iris Chinook
IVN contributing writer &
An agreement was reached Feb. 3 between WaterWatch of Oregon and Q Bar X Ranch, providing for the removal of Pomeroy Dam. The dam, installed in the ‘40s, has been used by Q Bar X to divert water for irrigation for many years.
The dam has also been a focus of fish restoration efforts as it spans the entire reach of the river, creates warmer water temperatures, and does not provide for safe passage of migrating salmon. According to the American Rivers website, “A total of 1,797 dams have been removed in the U.S. since 1912. Many, perhaps most, of the more than 90,000 dams in the country are no longer serving the purpose that they were built to provide decades or centuries ago.”
In a lawsuit filed June 22, 2022, on behalf of WWO, a national nonprofit organization called Earthjustice, dedicated to providing legal support for environmental groups, sought the protection of the critical Illinois River fish habitat.
A spokesperson from Q Bar X Ranch commented, “We didn’t have much of a choice. We were at the mercy of the laws of the State.” Oregon’s fish passage statutes (ORS 509.585(2) & ORS 509.610(3)) require that the dam be removed or that adequate fish passage over the dam be provided.
According to their website, WWO, founded in 1985, was the first organization in the West to seek structural reform of antiquated water laws to protect and restore our rivers for recreational fishing and other nonindustrial and agricultural uses.
The agreement, reached in early February, calls for Q Bar X Ranch and WWO to work together to remove the dam at no cost to Q Bar X Ranch. The agreement also provides new irrigation infrastructure for Q Bar X. “This is a good result. This is what WWO wanted all along,” said Janette K. Brimmer, senior attorney for Earthjustice’s northwest office.
But not everyone is supportive of the Pomeroy Dam removal, Valley resident and developer, Barbara Howard, of Howard and Howard Investment Group, LLC is very opposed to the plans. “I have heard that Q bar X Ranch and Water Watch have reached and signed an agreement to remove the Pomeroy dam. I have concerns for our community, this town, our state park and the environment at this time.
“The reason for the removal of the dam is that the fish ladder needs to be compliant with current standards. It is unprecedented to have an environmental group pursue a private dam owner. The Pomeroy dam is owned by Q bar X. This agreement was signed without public input or knowledge. I would like to see the public informed on this subject every step of the way through the process. The fish ladder could be upgraded and there would be no negative impacts to the upstream spawning grounds or everyone that lives on the river,” wrote Howard in an email to the Illinois Valley News.
Howard said she met with Josephine County John West, Cave Junction City Councilor Ethan Lane and former Commissioner Simon Hare March 29 at Pomeroy Dam.
Councilor Lane, who lives in the Pomeroy River Estates, said he met with Howard after just recently learning of the dam removal, because it sounded like there were too many unknowns. “I was curious as to how the agreement took place between a private property owner and an environmental group.” Lane added that his interest is to make sure proper channels were taken in the agreement and he also wanted to take the opportunity to meet West and Hare at the meeting.
When asked if he thought the dam removal would change the view and ambience for Pomeroy Estate residents he answered: “It’s hard to know what effects it will have on the flow of the river until we see the plans. I can tell you that I have been swimming in a hole below the dam and I have seen many fish there.”
Lane wanted to point out that the Savage Dam on the Rogue River and Pomeroy Dam on the Illinois River were very different and that the Savage Dam shouldn’t be used as a point of reference.
Regarding Lane’s opinion on the intentions of Commissioner West, “I think he just wants to get to the bottom of this and do what is right. His heart is in the right place.”
Illinois Valley News reached out to West for comment but he was unavailable at the time of press deadline.
On the other side of the coin, WWO’s Southern Oregon Program Director Jim McCarthy said, “Offering dam removal at little to no financial cost to the landowner is WaterWatch’s standard practice for priority fish barriers such as Pomeroy Dam. According to Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, Pomeroy Dam is the highest priority barrier for fish passage improvement in the entire Rogue River Basin, and among the highest priorities in all of Oregon, because depending on the season it blocks or impedes passage to over 100 miles of salmon and steelhead habitat. Pomeroy’s small reservoir heats up the water more than a free flowing river would in that stretch.”
The Illinois River is a federally designated wild and scenic river and also a major tributary to the wild and scenic Rogue River. The Illinois and Rogue are both important salmon rivers which provide high-quality spawning and rearing habitat above the Pomeroy Dam. Southern Oregon Coast Coho, listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act, are present in the Illinois River.
McCarthy indicated that removal projects like Pomeroy Dam typically take 12 to 18 months to complete and that design and engineering for the project has already begun, adding, “Coho in the Illinois River are a concern because they are protected by a federal law intended to prevent the extinction of fish and wildlife. A lot of good Coho habitat in the Illinois is above this dam. The removal of Pomeroy Dam will also benefit fall Chinook, Pacific Lamprey, winter steelhead, cutthroat, and suckers.”
McCarthy wrote in an email, “WaterWatch has a long track record of working with private landowners in Oregon to address barriers to salmon and steelhead. Just in my decade at WaterWatch, we have removed five privately owned dams in southern Oregon. We also work with irrigation districts, government entities and institutions. We rely on expert fish biologists and engineers to design our projects and come up with the best solutions to the problems at fish barriers, but that doesn’t always mean structure removal. For example, in 2016 we worked with Gold Hill Irrigation District to end the harm their diversion dam on the Rogue River caused to salmon and steelhead. The irrigation district’s dam was modified and upgraded but is still there, just above Nugget Falls near Gold Hill. The problems for salmon and steelhead at Pomeroy Dam extend beyond the lack of a fish ladder. Meanwhile, the dam structure and its long delivery canal are a major maintenance and liability headache for the landowner. The best solution at Pomeroy is dam removal and replacement of its diversion function with properly screened pumps.”
When asked if there were any other dams slated for removal in southern Oregon, McCarthy wrote, “First, WaterWatch does not seek out publicity for our dam removal projects on private land while they are underway, to protect the privacy of the landowner. We know and respect that privacy is highly valued by people living in this region, so we did not seek out this article. Second, if you are a landowner with a diversion dam on a fish-bearing river or stream that you would like to see replaced with new, more fish friendly diversion technology at no cost to you, or even just a non-functional dam on a fish bearing stream that you would like removed at no cost to you, please contact us!”
Christopher Hall, executive director for Water League, a Valley based nonprofit engaged in the conservation and stewardship of water resources, said of the agreement, “We are so pleased that an amicable resolution to this challenging problem has been achieved. It really shows the leadership that Q Bar X Ranch has provided over many years to support agriculture in balance with our natural resources. Tough decisions are always hard-won, and hats off to all involved.”
Howard disagrees with this assessment. “When you have a group that only funds one agenda to take down dams but not fund the main reason being the fish ladder it seems shady to me. It is unprecedented to have an environmental group pursue a private dam owner.”
In conclusion, Howard said “This affects so many people on different levels here such as water rights and so on. I think studies such as environmental impact need to be made public as soon as possible. There are always positive and negative factors to consider. I do not want to see the dam removed. That is my opinion as a Pomeroy River Estates community member and I will take the time to be involved throughout the process to ensure the best decisions are made for our town, our community and all the people it may affect.”