DRY CREEK — The bottom of Soda Springs Dam looks more like a rock quarry than a river bed right now.
"It's hard to imagine that in just 18 months, fish will be swimming upstream of the dam for the first time in 50 years," said Monte Garrett, the program manager for the Soda Springs fish passage project.
The project on the North Umpqua River is a result of a 2001 agreement signed by PacifiCorp and seven state and federal agencies for relicensing of the North Umpqua Hydroelectric Project by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. Work began at the site June 29.
More than 100 employees from the companies Sims Electric, Umpqua Sand and Gravel, Knife River Materials and Weekly Brothers Construction are being contracted for the project, Garrett said.
"It's creating jobs," he said. "That's a good thing, it's what we need."
Because of construction, Forest Service officials have closed access to the Soda Springs Reservoir from the dam to one-half mile upstream. A line of buoy markers in the reservoir indicates the closure on the water to prevent boaters from coming into the construction zone, Garrett said. Nearby Forest Services roads and the North Umpqua Trail are closed as well.
Construction workers will use rock hammers and drills to remove extra rock from the site, and beginning next week, there will be some blasting, Garrett said. "It's going to be fairly minor, really subdued," he said of the detonation.
Prior to construction, workers drained the water at the base of the dam to create a dry area in which to work. PacifiCorp Principal Aquatic Scientist Rich Grost salvaged the remaining fish that were stranded after the drainage and transported them downstream.
As well as creating jobs, the estimated $60 million project, scheduled for completion in early 2012, will also create nearly six miles of habitat above the dam for fish. Chinook, steelhead, coho and pacific lamprey are species that will benefit from the extra growing room.
Longtime Idleyld Park resident and avid fly fisherman Frank Moore said the project will be very beneficial to the area. "This will certainly bring more fish to the habitat above the dam," he said, "and utilize the area for spawning."
Others that might benefit from the ladder are brown trout, whose home is currently upstream from the dam. These trout are voracious predators, and they prey on young salmon, Garrett said.
"We're going to do what we can to control the brown trout population and provide for both species," he said. "Hopefully there will be enough production of salmon that the trout won't make an impact."
The fish ladder will implement a "visual inspection program," or a video monitor that will count every fish as it swims upstream, Grost said.
"That way we'll have a record of numbers just like ODFW (Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife) does at the Winchester Dam," he said, comparing it to the fish ladder located just north of Roseburg. "This one will not be open to the public. There's not enough room."
In addition to the fish passage project, a tailrace barrier will be constructed at the Slide Creek powerhouse, upstream of Soda Springs, in 2011. This project will be similar to the one completed below the Soda Springs powerhouse in 2007 and will protect upstream migrating fish from effects related to outflows from the powerhouse.
"The fish might think that this turbulent water created by the powerhouse is another route," Grost said. "This fence directs them upstream so they don't get confused."
Other ongoing work along the North Umpqua includes improvements to the intake at Toketee Dam as well as numerous habitat enhancement projects for fish and wildlife.