Marmot Dam Removal

Science Center Objects

Marmot Dam on the Sandy River was removed in 2007 as part of decommissioning of Portland General Electric’s Bull Run Hydroelectric Project. Removal of the 15-meter-tall dam would allow the Sandy River to flow freely for the first time in nearly 100 years and make upstream habitat more accessible to anadromous fish.

The October 2007 breaching of a temporary cofferdam constructed during removal of the 15-meter (m)-tall Marmot Dam on the Sandy River, Oregon, triggered a rapid sequence of fluvial responses as ~730,000 cubic meters (m3) of sand and gravel filling the former reservoir became available to a high-gradient river. Using direct measurements of sediment transport, photogrammetry, airborne light detection and ranging (lidar) surveys, and, between transport events, repeat ground surveys of the reservoir reach and channel downstream, we monitored the erosion, transport, and deposition of this sediment in the hours, days, and months following breaching of the cofferdam.

The elevated sediment load was derived from eroded reservoir sediment, which began eroding when a meters-tall knickpoint migrated about 200 m upstream in the first hour after breaching. Rapid knickpoint migration triggered vertical incision and bank collapse in unconsolidated sand and gravel, leading to rapid channel widening. Over the following days and months, the knickpoint migrated upstream more slowly, simultaneously decreasing in height and becoming less distinct. Within 7 months, the knickpoint had migrated 2 km upstream from the dam site and became a riffle-like feature approximately 1 m high and a few tens of meters long. Knickpoint migration, vertical incision, and lateral erosion evacuated about 15 percent of the initial reservoir volume (125,000 m3) within 60 hours following breaching, and by the end of the high flows in May 2008, about 50 percent of the volume had been evacuated. Large stormflows in November 2008 and January 2009 eroded another 6 percent of the original volume of impounded sediment. Little additional sediment eroded during the remainder of the second year following breaching.

The sequence of transporting flows affected the specific trajectory of reservoir erosion and downstream sediment transport during the 2 years following breaching. However, because the overall erosion was largely a consequence of knickpoint retreat and channel widening, which in the 2 years after removal had affected most of the reservoir reach, it is unlikely that the specific sequence of flows significantly affected the overall outcome. Because the knickpoint had largely passed through the reservoir within 2 years, and the remaining reservoir sediment is mostly isolated high above armored or bedrock banks, it is unlikely that substantial additional sediment from the reservoir site will enter the system unless very large flows occur. Continued channel evolution downstream of the dam site is probable as deposits formed in the first 2 years are episodically mobilized. Below the Sandy River gorge, detection of effects related to release of reservoir sediment is challenging, especially in areas of sand deposition, because of the high background supply of sand in the river and substantial channel dynamism.