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Rogue River Watershed

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Headwaters Falls

The headwaters of the Rogue are found at 5,300 ft. as jubilant springs bursting from the west side of Crater Lake, which is the remnant of the Mt. Mazama volcano that erupted and collapsed approximately 7,000 years ago. Crater Lake is Oregon’s only National Park and, at 1,932 feet, it is the deepest lake in America.

The upper Rogue drains off the west side of the Cascades and tumbles through a volcanic legacy before entering a valley plateau where urban development is concentrated (the valley is created mostly by the Bear Creek tributary). Leaving the valley near Grants Pass, Oregon, the river cuts a deep canyon through the geologically complex and remote Klamath-Siskiyou Mountains before reaching the Pacific Ocean 215 miles from its hydrological beginnings.

Approximately 300 million years ago, the Klamath-Siskiyou Mountains were part of the oceanic crust and were carried toward the North American land mass via tectonic plates. The two masses were joined, and then folded, faulted and broken upon collision, creating a rugged and biologically diverse landscape unmatched on the West Coast and often referred to by geologists as the “Klamath Knot.” The Rogue cuts through these mountains in the north as it drains into Pacific, while the Klamath River dissects these mountains in the south.

Map of the Rogue Basin
The Rogue Basin

The Rogue drains all of or small portions of six counties in southwestern Oregon (Jackson, Josephine, Curry, Klamath, Douglas and Coos)  as well as small portions of two counties in northwestern California (Siskiyou and Del Norte).  The Rogue has five major subbasins: Upper Rogue, Middle Rogue, Lower Rogue, Applegate and Illinois. The Rogue is flanked to the north by the Umpqua River, to the east by the headwaters of the Klamath River, to the south by the Middle Klamath, Chetco and Smith Rivers and to the west by the Pacific Ocean.

Rogue River salmon was the backbone of the local Native American diet and culture, and today supports commercial and recreational fisheries while serving as the iconic symbol of the Pacific Northwest. In addition to the Rogue River, more than 4,000 miles of fish-bearing tributary streams are found throughout the watershed. Alarmingly, Rogue salmon fisheries have been in decline for decades despite fishing restrictions and mitigation efforts.

Nearly all the native fish species in the Rogue basin have been identified as “species of concern” because of their depressed numbers, and Coho salmon has been listed as threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act.  The Oregon Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) has identified more than 150 streams and lakes that are violating water quality standards or are otherwise impaired in the Rogue Basin, noting problems with temperature, bacteria, nutrients, flow, cyanobacteria and sedimentation. According to DEQ there are many hundreds of miles of streams and rivers in the Rogue Basin that are in violation of water quality standards, including waterways on the Clean Water Act’s impaired 303(d) list, and watersheds for which Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) documents have been approved (click here to see maps of impaired waters for various criteria).

Pretty Canyon

Southern Oregon/Northern California coastal Coho salmon were listed as threatened in 1997 and reaffirmed in 2005. Rogue populations of spring Chinook are in precipitous decline. Non-hatchery spring Chinook averaged about 29,000 during the 1940s through the 1970s. During the last ten years, population estimates averaged less than 9,000.

The Rogue basin serves as an important wildlife corridor, containing designated critical habitat for the northern spotted owl and providing habitat to dozens of other species, including bald eagles, black bear, river otters, and Roosevelt elk.   

For thousands of years, numerous Native American Tribes lived in the Rogue basin, including the Chastacosta, Chetco, Dakubetede, Latgawa, Takelma, Taltushtuntude, Shasta and Klamath. French fur trappers arrived in the 1820s and were the first Europeans in the area and called the river, “La Riviere aux Coquins” (meaning the River of the Rogues, in reference to the numerous Native tribes in the watershed). The fur trappers were followed two decades later by westward expansionists blazing the Applegate Trail through the Rogue Valley, then miners and early Euro-American settlements. Native Tribes were victims of a ruthless assault that became known as the Rogue Indian Wars. The few remaining survivors were marched outside of their ancestral territory to reservations in the north.

With the near extermination of native people in the 1850s, and the introduction of industrial resource extraction, the natural landscape of the Rogue watershed has changed dramatically over the past 150 years.  Land has been cleared for ranches and farms; streams have been dammed, diverted and channelized; widespread mining has polluted waters and contributed to the decline of salmon; forests have been impacted by logging, road construction and fire suppression; and urban growth is increasingly affecting the watershed.  Collectively, these human impacts changed the watershed’s hydrology, increased the severity of erosion, affected soil productivity, and altered vegetation.  Click here for more information about threats to the watershed.

Downtown Medford
Downtown Medford, photo Fred Stockwell

Today, the largest city in the watershed is Medford (pop. 74,907 as of the 2010 census), which is the seat of Jackson County. Grants Pass (pop. 34,533) is the seat of Josephine County. Gold Beach (pop. 1,897) is the seat of Curry County.

The entire Rogue basin population is estimated at 257,914. The most heavily urbanized area in the Rogue Basin is along the Bear Creek tributary, which includes the towns of Ashland, Central Point, Jacksonville, Medford, Phoenix and Talent. The estimated population of this urbanized area is 129,000. Half of the watershed’s population lives along Bear Creek primarily in the Medford metro area, the 4th largest metro area in the state of Oregon.

The Rogue watershed area encompasses approximately 3.3 million acres (just over 5,100 square miles). Land use in the basin is 67% forest, 22% grassland/shrub, 4% agriculture and 4% urban (3% other) according to the USGS 2001 National land Cover Database. The federal government is the majority landowner in the Rogue Basin with the U.S. Forest Service managing 37% and the U.S. Bureau of Land Management managing 23%. Private land comprises 36% of the watershed. Other federal agencies, as well as state and local governments own the remaining 4%.

In addition to the Rogue River watershed, Rogue Riverkeeper also works in the Chetco River watershed, and other coastal watersheds adjacent to the Rogue.

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