Johnson Creek is a small stream that begins in the hills east of Bandon and empties directly into the Pacific Ocean. It is a farming-forestry area, dotted with rural houses, cranberry bogs and patches of forest. Johnson Creek, like many other small streams in the vicinity, is a coho stream whose habitat has degraded over the years by careless farming, forestry and road-building practices. But Johnson Creek faces a much more serious threat: a dam proposed by the Bandon Cranberry Water Control District for more than ten years now. First proposed to be ninety feet in height, the current proposal has shrunk, but the dam is still controversial. Original subscribers for the reservoir waters included the City of Bandon, cranberry farmers in the area, and Michael Keiser, owner of Bandon Dunes Resort. The District applied for water rights with the state Water Resources Department, first in 1997 and then an expanded water right for 1,100 acre/feet in 2006.
The Water Resources Department (WRD) in March 2013 issued an order denying the District’s 1997 water rights application, for two main reasons: the amount of water the District wanted was not available, and the proposed use, for a dam and reservoir, would “impair or be detrimental to the public interest.” WRD then issued its Initial Review for the District’s 2006 expanded water right application. The Department made it clear that since the initial water right is being denied, the expanded one would certainly face the same fate.
The City of Bandon, the largest subscriber, reaffirmed its support for the dam in June 2012, but finally pulled out of the project entirely. It had been dragging on for too long with nothing to show for the money the City had invested. In Summer 2013, the City decided not to pay the $9,000 assessment from the District to support an appeal of the State’s water permit denial.
After lengthy negotiations the District and WRD settled their differences — without involving ORCA, though we specifically asked to participate in negotiations — and the Department issued a water permit for the proposal under the settlement agreement. What has changed? The District would build a fifty-one foot dam. They would have the right to store the much smaller amount of 550 acre/feet of water annually, only for agriculture and livestock. No municipal uses will be allowed.
The final order, dated April 2017, has many conditions that make the dam most unlikely to ever be built. The Department of Fish and Wildlife must issue and exemption to fish passage requirements before the dam could be built, and require fish screening and bypass devices before any water is stored. The District must show proof to WRD that they have full access or ownership of all lands to be inundated. This means all impacted landowners who oppose the dam hold the trump card: if they deny access or ownership, WRD will not permit the dam to be built. The order also specifies that water appropriation can only occur when there is enough water to satisfy all prior rights, including the existing instream right.
Nevertheless, ORCA opposes the dam on Johnson Creek, whether it is ninety feet or fifty-one feet high. It is bad policy to build a large dam on a small, local stream struggling to regain its coho habitat. The dam is unnecessary, and is a complete waste of local taxpayers’ time, energy and money, as well as state resources. Though much smaller than ninety feet, the proposed dam is still more than high enough to be a hazard to downstream landowners, and its reservoir will still greatly impact and perhaps ruin the adjacent cranberry farm operations. Local water needs should be met by collaboration that allows all surrounding cranberry famers and other users to benefit, rather than damming the creek for the benefit of a few and the loss of most ecological function on the remainder of the watercourse.