Contributed photo/Heather Rookstool
CANYON CITY — State officials said Oct. 21 the Canyon Meadows Dam needs to be removed this year to protect residents from an increased risk of flooding as a result of the 110,000-acre Canyon Creek Complex fire.
The state has considered the dam a fragile structure since leaking was discovered shortly after it was built more than 50 years ago. Multiple state studies over the years have concluded the dam needs to be removed.
“The dam has a lot of value to the people of Grant County. The state is aware of that,” Brett Brownscombe, the Governor’s natural resource policy advisor, said. “The state believes there is an elevated risk to public safety post-fire and a risk to property and human life below the dam.”
Commissioner Britton asked Ken Olson, who lives below Canyon Meadows Dam, if he was worried about it failing.
“Not particularly,” Olson replied. “I’m not worried about the dam.”
The state’s plan is to remove the dam, owned by the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW) on Forest Service land, before this winter. Removal would take five days and cost $200,000 at the most.
The plan did not sit well with the Grant County Court and a crowd of about 100 residents who packed Grantville Theater for the hearing.
Residents have a hard time believing the dam could blow out, and they have actually seen it protect the community in past flood events. The dam, built in the 1960s, has also provided a scenic recreational area.
“The dam has been there for 52 years,” said Gregg Haberly of John Day. “If it was built on such unstable ground it would have washed out a long time ago.”
The Grant County Court proposed leasing the dam from the state for one year to determine if it can be repaired or if it needs to be removed.
“It’s our resource. It’s our playground,” County Commissioner Boyd Britton said. “Even though it’s on your property, we consider it ours and we don’t want to lose that precious commodity.”
The county also suggested sending its engineer Doug Ferguson to examine the site before the state makes its final decision.
Ferguson stated he didn’t have enough time or post-fire information to determine if the state was right or wrong to take down the dam.
Canyon City resident Jesse Madden asked if the court could file an injunction. Rep. Cliff Bentz (R-Ontario) said anyone could, but would require a bond to accept liabliltiy for all potential loss, life and property.
The state officials were open to working with the county, but said time is running short to get work done before this winter.
“The state’s decision was made to move forward with the removal, but we want to work with the county on conversations we are having on the front of new impoundment opportunities and strong feelings about this particular one,” Brownscombe said.
Unable to convince the state to stop its plans, the county court changed the discussion to have a new dam built on the creek. The county asked for a commitment from the state to assure a new dam is built.
“I don’t think there is anyone here saying that is not an option,” Brownscombe said. “We need to see what the proposal looks like. There is a process and money. There is an intent and commitment. We can talk about formalizing that.”
Brenda Bateman, from the Oregon Water Resources Department, explained how the county can apply for grant funding to have a new dam built. The State Legislature has set aside $54 million for such water projects.
Residents remained skeptical that a new dam would come in once the current one is removed.
Brownscombe addressed the concern by saying the removal is solely based on a risk to public safety and not a perceived dam removal agenda.
“We would not be having this conversation right now if it was not for the Canyon Creek Complex Fire and the additional risk it brought to this situation,” he said.
Bruce Eddy, from the state department of fish and wildlife, said the potential for a serious landslide or flood being backed up by a fragile dam could very likely cause the dam to fail.
“That makes it worse by a quantum level,” he said.
The county court ended its hearing with the state by requesting more time and more clarifications on an approach for a new dam. Despite its concerns, the county court ultimately acknowledged the decision is up to the state.
“To the state of Oregon, the dam is yours, the permit is yours, the decision is yours,” County Judge Scott Myers said. “I guess if we have not compelled you to do otherwise, we have no other option than to take the dam out. It appears that your plan to proceed would be your option.”
The Blue Mountain Eagle was unable to confirm the status of the dam with ODFW Tuesday afternoon before going to press.