More than a year after a collaborative group could not agree about whether to tear down the dam at Bates State Park and return Bridge Creek to its natural flow, consensus was reached at a fourth meeting in March — the dam and the pond behind it will stay.
Scott Nebeker, the park development administrator for the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department, delivered the news during a presentation at the Grant County Court March 14.
The court has a stake in the outcome — it backed a $400,000 loan in 2007 so the Bates Park and Museum Foundation could purchase the former town and mill sites for a future park. Commissioner Boyd Britton was a member of the foundation’s board.
But soon after the state purchased the land from the county for $406,612 in lottery funds, and plans for a state park progressed at “light speed” under Gov. Ted Kulongoski’s “park-a-year” plan, a political division formed between passionate supporters of culture, history and recreation and equally passionate supporters of native fish and free-flowing streams.
Friends of Bates State Park wanted to honor the memory of the little company town and the mill that supported it from 1917 to 1975, and the county court and OPRD wanted to add the site to a historical grouping that boasted Canyon City’s gold rush days, the Sumpter Valley Railway and dredge site and the Kam Wah Chung State Heritage Site. Federal, tribal and non-governmental entities, however, aligned themselves in favor of fish.
By 2009, the Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board had invested more than $6 million in fisheries projects over 10 years in Grant County. Much of that money had been spent on the Middle Fork of the John Day River, which flows past Bates.
The concern was protection for two native fish — spring chinook salmon and summer steelhead. The latter are listed under the Endangered Species Act. The Molalla-based Native Fish Society sought funding in 2009 to conduct a comprehensive and independent review of the benefits of removing the Bates dam as opposed to OPRD’s approach of saving the dam and mitigating damage to fish and the watershed.
By June 2011, construction of the park was underway, which included planting 4,000 trees and shrubs and restoring a riparian area with a meandering stream where Bridge Creek enters the Middle Fork. The park opened three months later and was soon seeing 20,000 day visitors a year.
But the issue of the dam and pond was not settled. The dam was constructed in the late 1940s, and a fish ladder was built with public money in 2001 — a quarter century after the mill shut down for good.
Water flowing from Bridge Creek warmed up several degrees while stored behind the dam before discharging into the Middle Fork, a violation of state water quality standards. In addition, the fish ladder did not meet current fish-passage standards.
A collaborative meeting led by a hired facilitator met for the first time in July 2016 to review options for the site. Lined up in support of fish and water quality were the Native Fish Society, the North Fork John Day Watershed Council, the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, the Warm Springs Tribe, the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Grant County Judge Scott Myers said in advance of the meeting that he didn’t believe removing the dam was in the county’s best interest.
“It has recreational potential for kayakers, boaters, swimmers, fishermen,” he said at the time. “It has a very strong sense of place for past generations and future generations of families from Bates and Austin.”
Myers said creating a diversion around the pond, deepening the pond and improving the fish ladder were on the table.
“I don’t see a win-win if we have to compromise and allow the pond to be permanently drained,” he said at the time. “I think we will fight that option.”
Breaking the deadlock
The group met in September 2016 for what was expected to be the third and final meeting, but the group failed to reach a consensus. Myers said all but one member had agreed to not challenge one of the six proposed options.
A fourth meeting was held in March. During the intervening year and a half, a stronger consensus developed and sideboards were established for the meeting.
“For purposes of discussing the options and developing a path forward, doing nothing was not an option,” Nebeker told the Eagle. “Neither was dam removal.”
In the end, consensus was reached to allow OPRD to move forward in developing Option A into a more detailed design. Option A calls for constructing a bypass channel on the west side of the pond so most of the streamflow from Bridge Creek can flow to the Middle Fork without warming up.
Option A also calls for shrinking the pond’s footprint while deepening the pond by dredging as much as six feet of silt — and any remaining logs called “sinkers” that might be buried in the silt. The dredged material would be used to erect a berm to form the bypass channel.
In addition, Option A calls for improving fish passage around the dam by either fixing the existing fish ladder or replacing it with one that could include natural features in its design.
“Some fish passage is occurring now,” Nebeker said.
OPRD has lined up $200,000 of its own funding to work on planning, preliminary design and permitting for the project. A dam integrity study will be conducted in the next year, which “could potentially affect Option A depending on study results,” Nebeker said.
OPRD will hold a public informational meeting on the plans this summer and then present the complete design to the public in spring 2019. The construction contract would be awarded in summer or fall 2019, with construction starting in spring or summer 2020. Nebeker said this timeline was optimistic, and he expected everything could be pushed back a year.