US, Oregon governor John Kitzhaber has announced a plan to remove dams on two rivers to restore natural habitat for threatened salmon and steelhead. The two dams, constructed nearly 90 years ago, are located approximately 50km east of Portland. The two dams become the second and third to be removed in Oregon to restore natural habitats for fish. A smaller dam was removed in the Medford area last year.

The plan to remove the dams is the result of an agreement reached by the city, dam owner Portland General Electric (PGE), Oregon state, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), and other federal and state agencies. As part of the agreement, Oregon is committed to providing US$10M in funding for the US$22M habitat restoration project. The balance is to be funded by the City and PGE.

The agreement requires the dams, Marmot on the Sandy river and Little Sandy on the Little Sandy river, and their ancillary structures, to be removed to restore free flowing conditions in the rivers. NMFS officials said the opening of the main stem of the Sandy river will create more than 160km long unobstructed passage for fish — from the Pacific Ocean to Mount Hood.

As part of the demolition, the utility will end nearly 90 years of diverting water out of the Little Sandy and Sandy rivers. Demolition would get PGE out of an ageing, no longer profitable hydro power project.

PGE expects to obtain Federal Energy Regulatory Committee (FERC) approval and complete the removal of the dams as well as other structures in about two years. There have been other dam removals in the US, but this marks the first time a utility has voluntarily removed multiple dams before the end of a licensing period in a co-operative effort with the government.

Meanwhile, the state of Oregon Senate has passed a bill to give the Legislature power to block any dam removals. The bill was also accepted by the state house of representatives, by a slim margin.

The bill was tabled as a measure to head off attempts by environmental groups to remove the Savage Rapids dam on the Rogue river, and would not affect the removal of the Sandy river dams.