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See 'Return of the River' at Milwaukie's annual Watershed Event

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The title of the film says it all: “Return of the River — Changing Course is Possible.” That film, which headlines the fifth annual Watershed Event on April 23 at the Masonic Lodge in downtown Milwaukie, is about the removal of the Elwha Dam in Washington state.

PHOTO BY ELLEN SPITALERI - Watershed event organizer Greg Baartz-Bowman, left, and Milwaukie Mayor Mark Gamba stand on the bridge overlooking the Kellogg Creek Dam, with the Willamette River in the background. Removing the dam is the focus of a grassroots campaign. “The story of the dam and river touches Milwaukie in a unique and deep way. It’s a film for our time that charts the course of the possible,” said organizer Greg Baartz-Bowman.

What Baartz-Bowman is referring to is the issue of removing Milwaukie’s Kellogg Creek Dam. At the watershed event, he and Mayor Mark Gamba will propose “grassroots activism to form a nonprofit” with the goal of removing the dam.

SUBMITTED PHOTO - 'Return of the River,' a film about the removal of the Elwha Dam in Washington state, is the headliner for the family-friendly watershed event on April 23.Every year at the event, Baartz-Bowman has brought in a film that tells a story about “where a dam was, and now it’s not. [A film] that tells a story that people in Milwaukie need to hear,” he said.

But in regard to the actual removal of the dam, Baartz-Bowman added, “It seems like we take two steps forward and one step back. It’s hard to watch the pace of government, so we decided to form a nonprofit called Free Kellogg Creek, with the sole goal to create awareness without the constraints of government.”

Kellogg Creek Dam

The dam is at the site where Joseph Kellogg built a mill in 1858, damming the creek to power his mill, and creating the lake, when there were only about 20 people in Milwaukie.

The mill functioned for 30 years and then closed, and in the past, according to “An Oral History of Kellogg Lake,” available under Historical Resources on the city of Milwaukie’s website, children could swim in the lake or skate on its frozen surface.

But no one can use the lake now because it’s polluted, and what is holding up the removal of the dam is money, as the removal project would cost an estimated $16 million, Gamba said.

A huge part of the problem is that the dam is connected to an ODOT-owned bridge on Highway 99, and removal of the dam and bridge are not high on ODOT’s list of priorities, when the government agency has to deal with roads and bridges that are actually failing, Gamba said.

“Because the dam has always been there, it is hard to get action to happen. But if we build a big enough grassroots nonprofit, maybe the powers that be will take note,” he said.

“With a nonprofit, we could use crowd-saving funds to create awareness [about the dam], and through the nonprofit, we could get a citizen-investment municipal project that would get more people excited about the removal of the dam,” Baartz-Bowman said.

“We want to form a board, and have the board make the decisions about crowd-funding sites. The night of the Watershed Event we will be looking for potential board members; there will be a form to fill out,” Gamba said.

Dam removal

So why is it so crucial that the Kellogg Creek Dam be removed?

“Kellogg Dam is a known culprit in the loss of our native fisheries. Salmon, especially juvenile salmon, need the safe harbor of creeks and streams as they begin the long journey to the Pacific Ocean. For 160 years, Kellogg Dam has blocked access for most native fish, and for the few that do pass over the dam, a greeting of deadly warm water and hungry non-native fish await. Kellogg Dam is a disaster, and it’s time we cleaned it up,” Baartz-Bowman said.

Gamba added, “The juveniles barely make it to the sea. Usually they are able to float downstream, but because of all the dams on the Columbia River the juveniles have to swim. We still need the dams on the Columbia that produce electricity, but we should get rid of the dams that don’t do anything.”

The grim statistics back up what the two men are saying. In 2013, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife counted 336 salmon in the Kellogg Creek and Mount Scott watershed, and the Corps of Engineers estimated that 98 percent of the time, the fish can’t use the ladder at Kellogg Dam.

Calling the situation a “tragedy,” Baartz-Bowman added, “The health of the creek won’t get any better with the dam still there.”

Elwha Dam

“The Return of the River,” the feature film that Baartz-Bowman will show April 23, chronicles the largest dam removal in U.S. history; it began in September of 2011, and six months later the dam was gone.

Now the Elwha River flows free from its headwaters in the Olympic National Forest in Washington to the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

The dam was built in the early 1900s, primarily to bring lumber to the growing area. But it blocked the migration of salmon upstream, disrupted the flow of sediment and wood downstream, and flooded the historic homelands and cultural sites of the Lower Elwha Klallam tribe, according to the National Park Service website.

Once the dam was down, there was a “pretty significant return of the salmon, and a beach formed at the mouth,” Gamba said.

But something even more significant occurred for the tribes of the Lower Elwah Klallam region, Baartz-Bowman said.

In that area there were caverns where the Native people thought life itself originated; those caverns were inundated with water when the dam was built.

“With the drawdown of the water [when the dam was removed], those caverns were revealed again, and now [tribe members] can get to those sites again. So the spiritual connection goes way beyond [looking at the river] as a source of food,” he said.

Baartz-Bowman knew he wanted to do more at the event than just show the film, so he is bringing in Roger Fernandes, a member of the Lower Elwha band of the S’Kallam Indians, as a guest speaker.

Fernandes is an artist, scientist and storyteller and is “someone who has lived his whole life [along the Elwha River] and has heard stories about life before the dam was there,” Baartz-Bowman said.

Watershed Event

Milwaukie City Council President Lisa Batey will serve as emcee for the Watershed Event, which begins at 7 p.m.

Ticket prices are $8, if tickets are purchased online, and $10 at the door.

“We were fortunate to get a Clackamas County tourism grant and the grant covered the cost of the entire event. So the ticket prices will be used to fund the nonprofit. We want people to come and support this community effort,” Baartz-Bowman said.

Sure, that seed money will be minuscule in the face of needing to raise $16 million to remove the dam, rebuild the highway bridge and restore the lake area, but it is a start.

“The removal of Kellogg Dam is the single best measure to rehabilitate the natural system of the Kellogg/Mount Scott Watershed and return Milwaukie and its surrounds closer to harmony with its watershed. We are shooting for the moon, and we’re going to get there,” Baartz-Bowman said.

He added, “I believe that making something right makes our lives better and more meaningful. Dam removal on Kellogg Creek is the right thing to do. After the dam is gone and the native fish return, we’ll all be better for it.”

Free the creek

What: The Milwaukie Film Series presents the fifth annual Watershed Event, featuring the full-length film “Return of the River.”

When: 7 p.m. Saturday, April 23

Where: Milwaukie Masonic Lodge, 10636 S.E. Main St.

Cost: $8 if purchased online and $10 at the door; visit milwaukiefilmseries.com to learn more about the event and to buy tickets.

Guest speaker: Roger Fernandes, a Native American artist and storyteller whose work focuses on the Puget Salish tribes of Western Washington, will be the guest speaker at the event. He is an enrolled member of the Lower Elwha Band of S’Klallam Indians and has a degree in Native American Studies from Evergreen State College. He uses traditional stories as guides for community organizing and social change. As an artist he creates Coast Salish designs, paintings and prints that share the culture and beliefs of the local Salish tribes.