Dams in Doubt
by Mateusz Perkowski
Capital Press, February 11, 2010
Fish, climate change and passage of time take toll on water infrastructure
The pressure on Western dams is mounting.
Age and delayed maintenance have led to worries about structural deterioration and catastrophic failure.
Environmental activists have focused negative attention on dams as barriers to the migration of endangered and threatened fish.
At the same time, the demand for water storage, flood control and electricity generation is expected to surge in the future.
As renewable energy continues to be a national priority, hydroelectric facilities offer a reliable source of power compared to the fluctuating output of wind turbines and solar panels.
Climate change may diminish mountain snowpacks, potentially causing summer water shortages unless the capacity to store runoff is increased.
Volatile weather patterns in the winter may also aggravate flooding, heightening the need to regulate seasonal water flows.
"It does set up a real tension," said Karl Wirkus, deputy commissioner for operations at the Bureau of Reclamation.
The fate of dams is of special concern to agriculture. The structures often store water for irrigation and, in some cases, generate hydroelectric power needed for pumping.
As more water is devoted to municipalities or left in-stream for environmental purposes, there's more stress placed on agriculture, said Dan Keppen, executive director of the Family Farm Alliance, a group representing Western irrigators.
Due to the anti-dam sentiment among some politicians and members of the media, it's often seen as easier to divert water from irrigation rather than invest in new infrastructure, Keppen said.
However, that's only a short-term solution to the problem, he said.
"We're not going to stay whole if we don't build new storage," Keppen said. "Agriculture has become the default reservoir to meet these new demands."
The feasibility of undertaking new projects or seriously upgrading existing ones is hindered by steep bureaucratic hurdles, he said.
In Keppen's view, federal agencies should find a way to streamline regulations to make the process less of an obstacle to investment.
"The regulatory process is so daunting and uncertain, it's not a good investment of time and money," he said.
Environmental laws that form the foundation for these regulations are unlikely to change, though, Wirkus said.
"You're going to have to deal with that requirement," he said.
Dam opponents have numerous opportunities to throw up legal roadblocks during the regulatory approval process, he said.
The most realistic way to streamline a project's approval is to get environmental groups to support it, or at least convince them of its necessity, Wirkus said.
"You wouldn't have as many challenges to overcome," he said.
Existing dams have their own problems.
Across the U.S., about 4,000 dams are susceptible to failure due to various defects, according to the Association of State Dam Safety Officials.
Of those vulnerable dams, 70 percent pose a high or significant hazard -- meaning their failure would likely cause loss of life or economic disruption.
The cost of repairing potentially hazardous dams was pegged at about $16 billion in 2009, up from about $10 billion in 2003, according to the association.
"There is a backlog of repairs to infrastructure, no doubt about it," Wirkus said.
Dams are showing their age in another respect as well.
About 70 percent of the 80,000 dams within the U.S. were completed prior to 1970, according to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
Those dams were built before many relevant environmental laws -- such as the National Environmental Policy Act, Clean Water Act and Endangered Species Act -- became effective.
Now, the legality of some ongoing dam operations is being called into question.
For example, the National Wildlife Federation and other groups have been engaged in a complex court battle with the federal government since the mid-1990s over federal dams on the Columbia and Snake rivers.
Environmental groups claim that the federal government's dam operations violate the Endangered Species Act by harming salmon populations.
In the case of four hydropower dams along the Snake River, the National Wildlife Federation believes that removing the structures is the most effective option, said Dan Siemann, senior environmental policy analyst for the group.
Siemann stressed that the group's ultimate goal is salmon survival, not taking out dams.
"If it can be done through other means than removing the dams, we're willing to entertain that," Siemann said.
The solution would need to be supported by broad scientific consensus, he said. "So far, we haven't seen that."
Hydroelectric facilities along the Klamath River have also drawn attention to the issue, because four dams owned by PacifiCorp are tentatively scheduled for removal beginning in 2020.
The deal between PacifiCorp and the federal government -- which licenses the dams' operation -- is intended to open the Klamath River to fish migration.
Another agreement aimed at resolving water disputes between irrigators, tribes and environmentalists also hinges on removal of the four dams.
The Klamath dams have a symbolic value, said Curtis Knight, deputy conservation director for California Trout, one of the groups pressing for their removal.
Like some other dams in the West, their environmental costs outweigh their benefits, he said. Taking out the Klamath dams would establish removal as an efficient and realistic alternative, Knight said.
The plan has met with opposition from groups that expect dam removal will jack up electricity rates and release toxic sediment into the river at huge financial expense.
Smaller removal projects have been indefinitely delayed in the past, so failure to execute the Klamath plan would likely set a precedent as well, Knight said.
"If you don't get it done, people will point to it and say, 'See, there are too many turns in the road,'" he said. Knight and Siemann both acknowledged that dam removal isn't a wise choice in every situation.
In all likelihood, dams will continue to play an important role in water management and power generation, so the environmental solutions will need to be evaluated on a case-by-case basis, they said.
"We don't have a wholesale approach to this," Siemann said. "We have a targeted approach."
On the whole, the strongest force affecting dams appears to be inertia.
Construction, maintenance and removal all face major political, regulatory or economic hurdles.
A new era of major dam construction -- or widespread removal -- is very unlikely, said Wirkus.
Taking out an existing major dam is just as difficult as building a new one, he said. "It would take a pretty compelling case either way."
learn more on topics covered in the film
see the video
read the script
learn the songs