New dam replenishes native life in the Skipanon RiverWARRENTON - Not long ago, the Skipanon River did not behave like a river.

It did not flow. It was not clear or cool. It skulked around the edge of Diane and Sonny Collier's expansive, green lawn, if it moved at all. It was murky, stagnant and stinking.

In the early 1960s, a dam built at Eighth Street by the U.S. Department of Agriculture cut the river in two.

The once murky waters of the river have cleared since the dam renovation was completed this fall.

LORI ASSA - The Daily AstorianTides could reach the downriver side of the dam, bringing a twice-daily influx of fresh, clean saltwater. But on the other side, where the Collier's live, tidal action was conspicuously absent.

Neighbors remember mosquitos, spidery tangles of exotic aquatic plants, sucker fish and carp. People didn't want to swim in the river. Farther upstream, Perkins Road residents complained about flooding, which the dam was built to control.

"It got pretty nasty there for a while," said Sonny Collier, a retired mill worker.

But now, thanks to a four-year renovation of the dam completed this fall, the Skipanon has been reconnected with the Columbia River Estuary, and residents are applauding the results.

Dick Hellberg, whose home is immediately upriver from the dam, has noticed cat tails, a flock of ring-necked ducks, sandpipers and other shorebirds, and salmon. His wife, Joanne, recently watched a huge sea lion exploring the stretch of water in front of their home.

"To me," said Dick Hellberg, elected this month to the Warrenton City Council, "It's an indicator that things are getting healthy. Now everything functions with the dynamics of the tide."

Salmon return

A strong wind whips down the Skipanon one afternoon as Jim Scheller pulls his white subcompact car onto the dirt road that tops the Eighth Street Dam.

Scheller, who many say was instrumental to the success of the project, walks around the sign describing construction of the dam and how it functions. He peers down into the clear water flowing through three refurbished 8-by-10-foot tide gates. The gates can be closed during extremely high tides to prevent flooding and opened for most of the rest of the year to maximize tidal action.

Scheller points to the 3-by-4 foot holes that allow fish to pass, even when the gates are closed.

Hellberg, who has lived on the Skipanon since 1971, remembers when salmon migrating upstream to spawn would get trapped in the dam. Local kids would catch the fish and release them upriver. But despite these efforts, salmon populations declined.

Surveys in Cullaby Creek, which feeds into the Skipanon River, found 130 fish in 1952. By 1992, the population had plummeted to 12. Since the fish passage at the dam was improved, more fish have been counted in Cullaby Creek. A survey conducted a week ago by the Skipanon Watershed Council found 34 coho salmon.

"The big payoff for us was the presence of fish," said Scheller, a pony-tailed and bespectacled registered nurse-anesthetist who built his home on the banks of the Skipanon in 1981.

As evidence of the project's success, Scheller adds statistics about improved water temperatures, dissolved oxygen and salinity to his neighbors' observations of wildlife and the apparently rebounding fish populations.

Flood control

Some remain skeptical about the dam's ability to control flooding. They're waiting for the heavy rains of winter to come before passing judgment.

Sandi Pedersen, who lives on an acre of land at the south end of Dolphin Road that her father purchased in 1955, said flooding at her property has been so bad that she carries a pair of hip waders in her car. November floods in 1998 required her to park a quarter mile away from her home.

"I have to reserve my opinion on the Eighth Street Dam until after the winter," said Pedersen, a nonemergency driver for Medix Ambulance Service. "I'll either have a positive or negative opinion depending on how many times I have to wade out of here to go to work."

She said she's concerned about who will be responsible for operating the tide gates in a flood.

Scheller said members of the Skipanon Water Control District board of directors share that responsibility, and the board is developing an agreement with the city of Warrenton, which has a full-time public utility department to operate the dam.

Pedersen said that she felt her voice went unheard at early public meetings about the project, but that Scheller eventually became more concerned about her complaints.

For his efforts on the project, Scheller was presented a Governor's Spirit of the Oregon Plan award last week. The award recognizes citizen watershed restoration efforts. Scheller said he would rather not be the center of attention, preferring to spread recognition for the success among all involved.

"The best thing about this to me," he said, "is it's been a really community-based restoration effort. I think everyone else ... deserves to share in that honor."

Looking ahead

With the Eighth Street Dam completed, Scheller and the watershed council are turning their attention to a similar project on Skipanon Slough at Galena Road.

LORI ASSA - The Daily Astorian

At the Eighth Street Dam, Jim Scheller discusses the newly refurbished tide gates.A dam there divides the mile-long slough, blocking tidal action and fish passage.

The city of Warrenton wrote a letter endorsing a project to update the dam, Scheller said, and the watershed council is gathering cost estimates. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers estimated the Galena Road project would cost more than $1 million, far more than the Eighth Street Dam.

Scheller said he hopes it can be done for less than half of that.

Restoring waterflow to its original patterns, while being mindful of flood prevention, is a major goal within the watershed movement, Scheller said.

"Where we can make connections safely, we'll do it."

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