The small, direct-ocean tributary of Johnson Creek in Coos County rises in the near coastal foothills and empties directly into the Pacific Ocean at the south end of Bandon. It used to be, like many other coastal creeks, a vigorous salmon stream with runs of several species, including the now Federally Threatened coastal coho. But decades of poor farming and logging practices, and illegal impoundments, have put an end to Johnson Creek’s salmon runs — for now.
The main problem is Stolz Dam, an approximately 20 ft. earthen dam on Johnson Creek, which spans the entire creek and has no fish passage at all. The reservoir backed up behind the dam is heavily silted in. This dam was built in approximately the mid 1980s by the family of Robert Stolz, a cranberry farmer. The Stolzes never applied for a storage permit for the Oregon Department of Water Resources (WRD) as required by state law for any standard reservoir dam over ten feet tall, that in addition stores more than 9.2 acre feet of water. If they had applied as required, there would have been engineering plans for the dam, WRD approval of those plans, public notice, opportunity for public comment, and the opportunity to appeal a final decision by the Water Resources Department. There would also have been a dam safety review by WRD once the dam was constructed. The Stolzs also failed to apply for removal-fill permits from the Department of State Lands (DSL), which would have protected Johnson Creek from the heavy sedimentation it suffered as a result of the dam.
These permits are important, because the dam is poorly constructed and poorly maintained. After heavy rainfall, it partially blew out in 2007. The Stolzs rebuilt it, again with no WRD or DSL permits. Damage to the creek, and to any landowners below, went unreported.
The Stolzes have various water rights in the Johnson Creek watershed. Because of this, WRD considers Stolz Dam to be merely a “diversion dam,” which does not need a storage water right, thus meaning that Stolz Dam is legal. However, the agency has never provided any statutory authority at all for its position. According to its own internal Technical Manual, WRD may consider this dam and its storage reservoir a “bulge in system,” which results when more water is temporarily stored as part of an irrigation system for agricultural needs, and released at the end of the season. But that policy, if legal, only covers legally diverted water. It would not cover Stolz Dam and its reservoir.
ORCA collaborating with Johnson Creek residents and farmers to remove Stolz Dam, thus also removing the most significant obstacle to restoration of Johnson Creek. That would allow cranberry farming and salmon production to co-exist in this small stream, and be an example for the many other coastal streams with similar problems. Unfortunately, the future of Johnson Creek, and its return to health, are tangled up in bureaucratic details, unwilling landowners, lack of funding and lack of clear leadership from the Department of Fish and Wildlife on the importance of removing the dam and beginning to restore the stream. Stream restoration for salmon without dam removal would be very difficult, as the creek is small and the dam has no fish passage infrastructure. Necessary removal of fish-obstructing culverts below Stolz Dam also costs money for which no funding is available. The salmon for whom Johnson Creek is home will probably need to wait yet longer before their creek is restored to them.