A PacifiCorp official told The News-Review in 1994 that a ladder to move fish past Soda Springs Dam on the North Umpqua River would cost $1.5 million.
Plus, the utility would have to spend $4 million to $5 million to install screens to keep fish from swimming into a powerhouse.
Twenty-two years later, the passage was finished for a cool $60 million.
Considering the alternative —removing the dam — the ladder was worth it.
News-Review staff reporter Jessica Prokop reported Aug. 2 that fish are swimming through the ladder and spawning upriver for the first time in 60 years.
The development means more wild fish in a river already revered by anglers.
Meanwhile, the dam continues to generate clean, renewable and relatively cheap electricity.
With all the cursing directed at dams these days, it’s easy to forget how much benefit they’ve brought to the Northwest.
Dams don’t emit greenhouse gases or generate radioactive waste, but they do spur industrial might, prevent floods and store water for irrigation. Workers, property owners and farmers benefit.
No wonder dams were extolled by populists in hard times. The Bonneville Power Administration hired leftist Woody Guthrie to write about Columbia River dams in 1941. For $266.66, the BPA got 26 songs and brilliance. Guthrie’s lyrics captured how dams gave hope to people displaced by the Dust Bowl and crushed by the Depression.
People who had little, or nothing, got something to live for. Consider this from “Pastures of Plenty:”
My land I’ll defend with my life if it be: because my pastures of plenty must always be free!
In more comfortable times, dams are cussed for harming fish runs.
In the late 1990s, the U.S. Forest Service pressed PacifiCorp to remove Soda Springs Dam, which is in the Umpqua National Forest.
The dam forms part of the North Umpqua Hydroelectricity Project, a network of eight dams built between 1947 and 1956 about 60 miles east of Roseburg.
Soda Springs Dam generates less than 6 percent of the network’s electricity. PacifiCorp argued that focusing on the percentage of electricity produced by the dam understated its contribution to the smooth operation of the whole system. Plus, that 6 percent can come in handy on the hottest and coldest days.
PacifiCorp held firm. In 2003, it won a new license from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to operate the dam for 35 years. It has spent $120 million, including $60 million on the fish ladder, to make the dams less harmful to the environment.
The ladder was a victory for the idea that it’s better to improve, rather than tear down, the structures that support the region.