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

Clean Water Services is asking the public to stay off the historic Balm Grove property in Gales Creek. 

“We know that historically this has been a popular gathering place in the community. However, the fish passage barrier poses a threat to anyone who trespasses on the site,” an email from the regional water agency read. 

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.

Public access has not been legally allowed for much of the 21st century at the creek side property.

Clean Water Services had a goal to remove the dam spanning Gales Creek, 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. 

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. Newspaper clippings from the earliest 20th century advertised dances at the Balm Grove property.

An advertisement in the July 7, 1921 edition of the Washington County News-Times for a dance at Balm Grove.

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.

In recent months, this reporter noted that people have been flocking to two sites along Gales Creek; Balm Grove and the Washington County-owned Rippling Waters property near Gales Creek and Roderick Roads, to escape historic heat waves that have been tied to the deaths of more than 100 Oregonians.

Both sites are ostensibly closed to the public. 

“Partners have been removing garbage, abandoned trailers and other material from the site in preparation of removing the fish passage barrier and restoring fish and wildlife habitat to this area,” the email read. 

According to Clean Water Services spokesperson Shannon Huggins, one trailer was parked on the property, but the operators of the trailer moved of their own accord. More recently, Huggins said, the agency had to enlist the help of law enforcement to move a trailer parked on the property with someone living in it. 

Funding to remove the dam has yet to materialize, and the agency’s efforts to remove it suffered another setback in late July. According to Huggins, a grant application the agency sent to the Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board (OWEB) to fund the project through the state agency’s stream restoration grant program was denied. 

Huggins said that Tualatin River Watershed Council Executive Director Scott McEwen was notified by OWEB in an email on July 23 that the agency had not been awarded the grant they had hoped for, but that OWEB encouraged the agency to apply again in the next quarter. If the funds were awarded then, dam removal could happen next summer.

“The earliest we’d be able to remove the barrier is summer 2022 – and that’s only if we are able to identify funding,” Huggins said. 

“We don’t yet know why we didn’t get it,” she added. 

The Gales Creek Journal obtained copies of the email sent by OWEB’s Willamette Basin Regional Program Representative Liz Redon July 22 to McEwen and the resulting email conversation via a public records request. 

In the email, Redon noted that 68 grant applications for restoration projects were received statewide for this round of funding, with nine of those projects—including the Balm Grove project—located in Region 3, which covers the Willamette Basin. 

OWEB staff ranked the nine projects in the Willamette Basin from one to eight, but not ranked was the Balm Grove project. 

Instead, the column for the Balm Grove Dam Removal project simply read “DNF,” a “do not fund” recommendation, and a likely death blow to this round’s funding chances.

More information on that recommendation is expected to be released at the end of September, and a final decision by the OWEB board will be made during the October 26-27 meeting in Enterprise, Ore., according to Redon.

In the original grant application—submitted by the Tualatin River Watershed Council 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. 

Huggins said that a new grant could be filed for on November 1, for potential funding by April 2022. 

In a report dated September 1998, 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. 

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. 

Those with questions were asked to contact Shannon Huggins at [email protected] or 503-681-3600.

This story was updated following receipt of a public records request from OWEB.