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Fish, political barriers are breached in Maine with implications here

Michael Paulson, Seattle Post-Intelligencer - July 2, 1999

One dam down; others in line

AUGUSTA, Maine -- This is how the end might come for a dam in Washington state.

Yesterday, on an overcast summer morning in the lush green Kennebec Valley, a lone backhoe scooped about 30 buckets of earth from a temporary gravel wall that had been built to patch a 60-foot gap engineers had cut in Edwards Dam.

Suddenly, accompanied by the pealing of church bells and cheers of hundreds of spectators, the caged Kennebec River turned wild.

Carrying more than a century of sediment and seven generations of memories, an estimated 18,000 cubic feet of water per second roared through the breach and, for the first time since 1837, flowed freely toward Merrymeeting Bay and the ocean 43 miles away. Soon, nine species of fish, including the endangered shortnose sturgeon, will once again be free to populate the river.

Environmentalists and anglers plan to use their success here to renew their push to remove more of the nation's estimated 75,000 dams. And at the top of their wish list are eight in Washington state. (map not shown)

"This is the beginning of something that is going to affect this entire nation," said Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, who is pictured on his official biography holding a sledgehammer.

He referred to the removal of the Edwards Dam as "a statement about our capacity to honor and respect God's creation, the sacramental commons, and to live not just in the past, but in a visionary and a different future in a way of balance and harmony with creation."

Babbitt's enthusiasm for dam removal horrifies defenders of some of the Northwest dams, which kill salmon but do generate hydropower and support irrigation, navigation and recreation.

"This (dam removal) is a further indication that Secretary Babbitt has this in mind and takes pleasure out of doing these things," said Rep. George Nethercutt, R-Wash., a fervent opponent of removing any dams from the Snake River in Washington state. "It's a perverse sort of pleasure."

The breaching of 24-foot-high, 917-foot-long Edwards Dam marks the first time a federal agency has ordered a dam removed after deciding that the cost to migrating fish denied access to upstream spawning grounds was greater than the benefit from the hydropower.

Similar decisions could be reached in Washington state, whose growth is partly attributable to the economic benefits of hydropower. At the same time, salmon, the very symbol of the region, are struggling to survive because dams block some of their migratory routes.

The most controversial proposal in the state is a push by environmentalists, driven by a desire to restore endangered salmon stocks, to remove four 100-foot-high federal dams on the lower Snake River. Ice Harbor, Lower Monumental, Little Goose and Lower Granite dams are valuable for irrigation and hydropower but harmful to fish.

"Late this year or early next year, we will come out with a recommendation either to breach or not to breach, or some third way," said Terry Garcia, the assistant secretary of commerce responsible for the National Marine Fisheries Service. "We're going to start engaging the region in a wide-ranging debate, not just on the science, but on all of the components to a decision that would affect those dams and that river . . . and hopefully reach a consensus."

But consensus is not in sight. Pitted against the environmentalists are powerful economic interests opposed to dam removal. Elected officials from the state have lined up to denounce the concept.

"This debate is irrelevant, when we ought to be saying many species have been listed as endangered, and what do we need to do to get them unlisted," said Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash. "We're spending a lot of time debating whether the Snake dams should come down, and not enough time putting our energy into other ways to save salmon."

A more likely candidate for removal in the short term is the Elwha Dam on the Olympic Peninsula. Congress has voted to remove the dam, and is considering how to pay for it.

But there are also several other, lesser-known instances in which a dam could be removed much sooner. The Simpson Timber Co. in Shelton hopes next summer to remove an unused 14-foot dam from Goldsborough Creek, a south Puget Sound tributary, while PacifiCorps, a Portland-based utility, is negotiating with environmentalists over how to pay for the likely removal of Condit Dam on the White Salmon River in Southwest Washington.

Some environmentalists are pushing for the removal of the Enloe Dam on the Similkameen River in Okanogan County, while others think Cushman Dam, owned by Tacoma Public Utilities, should go.

People have been building dams for thousands of years -- the first known dam was built on the Nile by the Egyptians in 2800 BC. Early American colonists used dams to power grist mills and saw mills, building their first dam in South Berwick, Maine, in 1634.

But removing them has become a trend. An estimated 121 dams have been removed in the United States in the past 40 years, but the breaching of the Edwards Dam "really marks a turning point in how we view rivers across the country," said Margaret Bowman, senior director of dam programs at the environmental group American Rivers.

"In the past, dam removal was considered a very radical and not very feasible way of restoring a river, but the Edwards demonstrates that this can be a practical and cost-effective way of repairing damage."

The future of dams has become an international issue. The World Commission on Dams is studying a variety of projects, including Washington state's Grand Coulee Dam, in an effort to assess the impacts of dams.

The hydropower industry is bracing for the debate. Industry officials are urging policy-makers and consumers to consider the benefits of hydropower.

"Over the next 10 or so years, the lion's share of hydro dams are coming up for relicensing, so this is really a pivotal time for hydropower," said Richard McMahon, an official of Edison Electric Institute, an industry trade association. "A lot of these dams are extremely productive resources -- emissions free, renewable -- and we'd like people to see the bigger picture."

In Maine, the picture was considerably less cloudy than in the Northwest.

By the time the dam removal movement was in full swing, the Edwards was generating just a tenth of a percent of Maine's electrical power, and the mills for which the dam was built had long since closed.

In 1997, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission denied a new license to Edwards, citing environmental costs. Fish once so plentiful that a laborer's contract stipulated he would not be served salmon more than once daily disappeared from above the dam and were struggling to reproduce below it.

The owner of Edwards Dam, facing a $9 million price tag to build a fish ladder, agreed to allow the dam to be removed. And the owners of other upstream dams, as well as Bath Iron Works, agreed to pay the $7 million cost of removal as mitigation for the harm their own projects do to fish.

Yesterday, the transformation of the river was dramatic. Above the dam, what had been a giant muddy reservoir populated by worms and freshwater fish became a rushing river that dropped 10 feet and soon is expected to attract the salmon and sturgeon that populate the lower river, as well as predatory birds such as osprey and eagles. Below the dam, the blue-gray water turned brown as the sediment and debris began to flow -- a temporary disturbance from which the river is expected to recover.

Federal authorities predict that removing the dam will add 1,100 shortnosed sturgeon to the river and double the number of Atlantic sturgeon to 10,000 over the next three to five years, as well as benefiting other migratory fish, including the American shad, Atlantic salmon, striped bass, blueback herring and alewives.

The cost of the dam to fish has been seen around Memorial Day each year, when hundreds of thousands of fish gather below the dam, flopping around after failing to traverse the dam to reach their upstream spawning habitat. Next year, they are expected to swim as far in as Waterville, 17 miles north, until they hit the next dam.

Michael Paulson, Washington Correspondent
Fish, political barriers are breached in Maine with implications here
Seattle Post-Intelligencer - July 2, 1999

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