Oregon Trails: Elk Creek Battle

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ELK CREEK, Ore. — For years, many Southern Oregon residents and officials dreamed of the day when a series of dams could be built in Applegate and Upper Rogue basins to store water and reduce flood run-off. Two of those dams were finished and have operated for nearly 30 years now, but one was never completed, and still sits a third done with no plans for completion.

Massive floods in 1955 and 1964 were the primary events that led Congress to authorize construction of three flood control dams in Jackson County to reduce flood flows along the Rogue and Applegate rivers. The Bill Jess Dam that created Lost Creek Reservoir was started in 1972 and finished five years later, in 1977.

Applegate Dam and Lake were started in 1976 and finished in 1980. Work on Elk Creek Dam began in 1985, and got to about a third of it’s intended height in 1988 when court orders stopped the project in it’s tracks. The cheif difference between Elk Creek and the other two dams of the Rogue Basin Project is that Elk Creek is made of concrete while the others are made of compacted soil and rock.

Using a dryer than usual concrete mix, the concrete could be poured faster and with less expense. Even so, the project soon skyrocketed beyond it’s original cost projections. Much of that cost over-run was tied to several expensive court battles and delays, stops and re-starts. Environmental groups criticized the costs, and said that heavy sedimentation from the Elk Creek drainage would soon clog the reservoir with silt. Supporters continue to see it’s value in reducing flood flows, and for water storage.

For almost 20 years after work stopped, the partially finished dam remained in place, but it also stopped fish from migrating up and down Elk Creek. The Corps of Engineers trapped and hauled mature salmon and steelhead upstream, and the baby fish swam back down. Finally, in 2008, the Corps were allowd to complete what they called a “notching” of the structure by blasing out a large section so the stream could flow freely.

So today, after some 25 years, piles of gravel are still in place to be mixed with concrete to finish the dam to it’s full 240 foot heighth. Some plants are beginning to regrow where they were cleared in the 1980’s to make way for a reservoir that has never been completed. When Elk Creek was first started, it was estimated the whole thing could be done for maybe 20 or 30 million dollars. But a number of lawsuits, court battles, and starts and stops, pushed that price tag to over a hundred million dollars. Experts expect it would probably cost at least that much more to finish the project.

Jim Buck with the Corps of Engineers says the Corps hopes to open more of the land behind the dam to vehicle access this summer. A parking lot is planned for development, and one of two old bridges is planned for removal to be replaced by a pedestrian bridge.