As Newport Dam ages, searching for a solution

December 15, 2013
As Newport Dam ages, searching for a solution

Cost of repair is key question

By Hillary Borrud

As Bend officials begin to negotiate with PacifiCorp to obtain the Mirror Pond dam, there are several questions they hope to answer. What is the dam worth, and how much would it cost to repair a leak and any other serious problems? And if PacifiCorp decides to remove the dam, how much would that cost?

The price tag to remove the dam is crucial because local officials believe the higher the cost, the more appealing it will be for PacifiCorp to transfer the dam for little or no money to a government agency that would maintain it.

A consultant for the Bend Park & Recreation District estimated it would cost $11 million to remove the dam.

But earlier this month, City Councilor Mark Capell said a PacifiCorp engineer laughed at that figure during a private meeting. Capell has since asked park district and city employees to conduct more research on the potential cost.

PacifiCorp spokesman Bob Gravely has repeatedly declined to say how much it would cost to fix the dam, most recently on Friday.

So local officials struck out on their own to look for other clues as to how much it might cost to remove the dam. Mirror Pond Project Manager Jim Figurski, who works for the Bend Park & Recreation District, found information on dams in Oregon and California in a 1999 report entitled “Dam Removal Success Stories,” which was compiled by American Rivers, Friends of the Earth and Trout Unlimited. It cost approximately $9 million to remove four small dams near Chico, Calif., and roughly $1 million to remove the small Jackson Street dam on Bear Creek, in Medford. “Really, those were the two closest that I could find,” Figurski said.

Winchester Dam

However, Keith Mills, dam safety engineer for the Oregon Water Resources Department, said it would not be accurate to compare the Mirror Pond dam to the Jackson Street dam removed in Medford.

“I don’t think it’s very comparable,” Mills said. “The closest dam I can think of is the Winchester Dam on the North Umpqua River.” The Winchester Dam is a timber crib design, the same type of structure as the Mirror Pond dam, and as similar as any Mills is aware of throughout Oregon. That dam still exists, and is maintained by a local tax district.

Mills said another possible comparison might be the Gold Ray dam, which was removed from the Rogue River in 2010. It cost more than $6 million to remove Gold Ray dam, according to the contractor’s website . Most of the funds — $5.5 million — came from the federal stimulus program. The Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board also provided roughly $1 million in grants to help with the project, according to the agency’s website. Although Gold Ray dam was more than twice as tall as Mirror Pond dam, it was a more straightforward structure built in a direct line across the river, Mills said.

Juan Yraguen is a member and former president of the Winchester Water Control District, which maintains the timber crib dam on the North Umpqua River. Yraguen also owns Basco Logging Inc., a company that has worked on restoring the Winchester Dam. The dam was built in 1889 and is in the National Register of Historic Places, according to the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.

The previous dam owner still generated power in the 1980s, and sold the electricity to PacifiCorp, Yraguen said. After the owner upgraded the hydropower equipment, Yraguen said environmentalists sued to stop its operation. The turbines were removed from the dam in the mid-1980s because they were killing Coast coho salmon and other fish, the Roseburg News-Review has reported. State lawmakers then passed a law prohibiting hydropower projects on that section of the North Umpqua River.

PacifiCorp was responsible for dam maintenance, as part of its agreement to purchase power, Yraguen said. Homeowners in the area wanted to keep the dam, because they thought it was attractive and they used the pond behind it for water-skiing, boating and other activities.

“(Winchester Water Control District) assumed the liability of the repairs and maintenance of the dam at the time and in lieu of doing so, Pacific Power basically had a buyout we agreed to, where they made payments to the water district for like a 10-year period in order to … eliminate them from being responsible for repairs and maintenance of the structure,” Yraguen said. The dam transfer took place around 1990, Yraguen said.

Gravely, the PacifiCorp spokesman, confirmed on Friday that the company was involved with Winchester Dam, but because of historical records research he was unable to determine what role the company had with the dam and when that involvement ended.

Transferring ownership

The Winchester Water Control District began to repair the dam in the early 1990s and has continued to work on it since then, with the most recent project in September. “Right now, we have a real nice, reconditioned dam,” Yraguen said. He believes it would benefit PacifiCorp to negotiate a similar transfer of dam maintenance responsibility for Mirror Pond dam.

“Taking it out is not going to be free,” Yraguen said. “A cheaper alternative for (Pacifi­Corp) might be to give it to the city, and put the city on the hook for its maintenance and repair.”

Yraguen estimated that dam repairs over the last decade cost “in the very high six figures,” probably close to $1 million. The water control district has not completed any new engineering work on the dam; when repairs become necessary, the district simply duplicates the existing structure. In Bend, some officials have suggested the community remove the existing dam and replace it with a different type of structure. Yraguen said it’s important to quickly fix a leak in a timber dam, such as the current leak in Mirror Pond dam, because the water and sediment it carries is abrasive. “That constant flow of water going through the dam, it will wear on those timbers so the bigger the leak, the bigger the problem,” Yraguen said.

Capell, the Bend city councilor, has called for PacifiCorp to make an offer similar to what Yraguen described: Capell said PacifiCorp should repair the dam, then give it to a local government because that might be less costly than removing the dam. Capell asked the park district and the city’s attorneys to conduct more research on the potential cost to remove the dam, and on laws that PacifiCorp must follow if it removes the dam.

On Friday, however, Capell said local officials might ultimately have to rely upon Pacifi­Corp for figures on the dam’s value and the cost to remove it, and simply do their best to make sure the utility calculates all the likely costs.

Dam removal

The state regulates Mirror Pond dam, and Bend city attorneys have started to research Oregon law on decommissioning dams. The physical removal of the dam is only one factor in the total price tag, said Assistant City Attorney Gary Firestone. The dam owner must come up with a plan to restore the river or stream, based on the unique circumstances at each location.

“So the question is what else has to be done,” Firestone said. “Do you restore the original channel? Do you dredge? Do you do other things? There’s nothing (in state law) that says what it has to be. The regulations say there has to be a decommissioning plan and the state will look at (a) long list of issues to see if it will approve the decommissioning plan, so I think it’s difficult to come up with an estimate.”

Figurski said he cannot do much more now to determine the potential cost to remove the dam. At this point, only PacifiCorp has the detailed information necessary for a more specific cost estimate. “Until those talks or negotiations go further, and we get more detailed information about the structure of the dam, it’s hard to pin down any costs,” Figurski said.

The park district does not currently have the money to conduct its own detailed engineering study and cost estimate, Figurski said.

Consultants who prepared the dam removal cost estimate have experience working with PacifiCorp on the removal of Condit Dam on the White Salmon River. “It’s not like we’ve just pulled people out of the woodwork to work on this,” Figurski said. “Because this is an urban waterway, I mean it’s there in the middle of town, there would be additional sensitivity (during dam removal).”

— Reporter: 541-617-7829,


Dam comparison

Mirror Pond Dam

Built: between 1910 and 1916

Details: Timber crib structure is 14 feet tall and 250 feet long. There is also a 150-foot concrete buttress section, and an approximately 75-foot power house and gate section.

Winchester Dam

Built: 1889, modified 1907

Details: Timber crib structure is roughly 14 feet tall and 400 feet long. Dimensions of the concrete buttress and power house were unavailable.

Jackson Street Dam, Medford

Built: 1960

Removed: 1998

Cost to remove: $1.2 million

Details: Concrete, 120 feet long and 11 feet tall.

Butte Creek Dams, Chico, Calif.

Built: early 1900s


Cost to remove: $9.13 million

Details: Four concrete dams that ranged in length from 10 to 100 feet, and from 6 feet to 12 feet tall. Additional irrigation diversions were also eliminated in the project.

Gold Ray Dam, Rogue River

Built: 1941

Removed: 2010

Cost to remove: more than $6 million

Details: Concrete dam, 38 feet tall and 360 feet long.

Sources: Bend Park & Recreation District, PacifiCorp dam engineering inspection report, Oregon Water Resources Department, Oregon Parks & Recreation Department, Slayden Construction Group, Inc., Dam Removal Success Stories report by American Rivers, Friends of the Earth and Trout Unlimited.

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