The Balm Grove Dam on May 1, 2019. Photo: Chas Hundley

The stalled Balm Grove Dam removal project may see movement again after the Tualatin River Watershed Council submitted an application in late April for a grant to partially fund the removal of the decades-old structure in Gales Creek and restore the stream habitat around the dam site.

The Balm Grove Dam removal project stalled in 2020 in the midst of permitting and subsequent funding issues, putting a halt to Clean Water Services’ plan to pull a decades-old dam from Gales Creek at the historic Balm Grove property. Some reports put the dam’s earliest documented existence at around 1936, based on aerial photography, though an exact construction date remains elusive. 

Clean Water Services is a public utility serving residents and businesses in portions of Washington County and is governed by the Washington County Board of Commissioners. A 15-member Advisory Commission tasked with providing input to the Washington County Board of Commissioners are appointed by said board for three-year terms. 

According to an April 22 email to the Gales Creek Journal from CWS spokesperson Shannon Huggins, the Tualatin River Watershed Council planned to submit a grant application to the Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board to fund the project through the state agency’s stream restoration grant program. 

“If we’re lucky enough to be chosen as one of the lucky recipients of grant money there are plans to finally pull that fish barrier out of Gales Creek,” Huggins said. 

The status of the grant award won’t be known until late summer of 2021, Huggins said. 

The former Balm Grove Tavern on May 5, 2020. Photo: Chas Hundley

Balm Grove, located at 10660 NW Balm Grove Loop in Gales Creek, was purchased from a private landowner in 2016 for $350,000 by Clean Water Services with the help of funds from the Portland’s Metro regional government and the Tualatin Soil and Water Conservation District.

Clean Water Services had a goal to remove the dam, reduce damage to the eroding creek bank, and restore stream habitat for fish species including winter steelhead, coho salmon, coastal cutthroat trout and Pacific lamprey, among other species.

And while some work has been done, with rickety outbuildings demolished, the old tavern-turned residence on the site repainted, native shrubs and trees planted and other restoration projects completed, the main goal of removing the dam and restoring the creek channel has yet to materialize. 

Clean Water Services had planned a tentative dam removal date of summer 2019, but summer came and went without any apparent forward progress on the dam. 

Scoggins Dam and Hagg Lake on August 3, 2020. Photo: Chas Hundley

The Balm Grove dam removal project was once envisioned as a way to mitigate negative impacts to fish habitat caused by the Tualatin Basin Dam Safety & Water Supply Joint Project at Hagg Lake, but after running into what Huggins described as “permitting issues” in an April 28, 2020 email to the Gales Creek Journal, the Balm Grove Dam’s removal as a way to mitigate the Scoggins Dam project fell through. 

If the grant were to be approved to fund the project, the grant contract would be signed in fall 2021, likely pushing “in-water” work in Gales Creek into a 2022 start, possibly in July.

The Gales Creek Journal obtained the grant application by the Tualatin River Watershed Council through a public records request to the Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board (OWEB). 

In the grant — submitted on the April 26, 2021 deadline set by OWEB — the watershed council asked for $450,193 from the state agency. The total project is expected to cost $774,307.

Clean Water Services, the Tualatin River Watershed Council, Metro, the Tualatin Soil and Water Conservation District, the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde, the Confederated Tribes of Siletz Indians, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, Tualatin Riverkeepers, and the Joint Water Commission are all listed as project partners in the 126-page grant document. 

“By raising water temperatures and altering flows, the structure has a negative effect on all fish species in Gales Creek. Balm Grove Dam also functions as a physical barrier to all but the strongest of the anadromous fish,” a statement in the grant read. 

A three-foot high concrete structure, the dam created a popular swimming hole in the Gales Creek community, and the property was host to a tavern and park for decades, formally and more informally into the early 2000’s. Wooden boards known as “flashboards” were added to the dam annually to raise the water level in the summer, bringing the height of the dam to seven feet when in place.

The Balm Grove Dam on May 1, 2019. Photo: Chas Hundley

Hot summer days still sees swimmers headed to the property, though technically closed to the public, to wade in the waters of Gales Creek.

The dam stretches about 100 feet from end to end close to river mile 13.

A schedule submitted with the grant application said that the dam removal would begin in July 2022 and be complete by September 2022, with stream widening to follow in July through September of 2023. Large wood habitat — sometimes as simple as a large fallen log — would be placed downstream of the dam to trap sediment released by the dam removal. 

Future public outreach plans for the project include an open house this summer, though a firm date has not been announced yet. Updates to a mailing list of interested parties, many of them local residents, and other events are planned to gain public interest in the project. 

The Tualatin River Watershed Council — a non-regulatory body — has known the Balm Grove Dam is an obstruction to fish passage for more than two decades. The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife has identified the Balm Grove Dam as an obstruction to fish passage for at least three decades. 

“An unauthorized private dam at Balm Grove, and a dam on Clear Creek in the Forest Grove Watershed impede upstream fish migration,” a September 1991 report from ODFW read. 

In a report dated September 1998, more than 22 years ago, the TRWC identified the Balm Grove Dam as one of four “priority artificial obstructions” at the time to fish passage in the Tualatin River Basin, along with a dam on Clear Creek, a Gales Creek tributary, the Scoggins Dam that created Hagg Lake, and the Finnegan Hill Dam on McFee Creek, a tributary of the Tualatin River. 

The Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board also funds the majority of the Tualatin River Watershed Council’s coordinator position and office expenses, according to the most recently available annual report from 2017-2018 listed on the agency’s website. 

The Tualatin River Watershed Council is a quasi-governmental nonprofit organization representing almost two dozen agencies, industries, and community groups in Washington County.