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Dam falls; Kennebec flows free

by Rocky Barker
Idaho Statesman, July 2, 1999

Dam breaching in Maine turns attention to Columbia, Snake

The breach in the Edwards Dam Thursday started as a trickle of water.

It quickly turned into a torrent, washing away the earthen coffer dam shielding the hole in the main dam. Five minutes later, the Kennebec River was permanently free for the first time in 162 years.

"What we are doing today is an act of creation," said Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt. "This is the beginning of something that is going to happen across the nation."

Only time will tell whether the waters rushing through the Edwards Dam will turn into a flood of river restoration projects that wash out more of the 75,000 dams on rivers across America. But now much of the focus of the campaign will move to the Pacific Northwest.

The Interior Department is negotiating with Washingto state officials to remove two dams on the Elwha River on the Olympic Peninsula. And federal officials later this year will release reports on whether to breach four dams on the Lower Snake River in Washington to save Idaho's endangered salmon. A decision could come early next year.

The legal ramifications of the Edwards removal also could affect the relicensing of 11 Idaho Power dams on the Snake River.

The historic event -- the first time a working dam was removed by order of the federal government -- came after a decade of "bare-knuckled fighting" between its owners and environmentalists. But the "bitersweet" event, as Augusta Mayor William Dowling called the breaching, celebrated the peace forged when the battle was over.

Edwards Manufacturing Co. and the city of Augusta handed the dam over to Maine. The state joined with the owners of seven hydroelectric dams upstream and Bath Iron Works, a shipbuilder that is the state's largest private employer, to put up $7.5 million for removal of the dam and restoration of the watershed to compensate for pollution and fish barriers at their dams and the shipworks.

In exchange, the city got a park, the owners didn't have to pay to remove the dam, the hydro companies won a 16-year delay in building fish passage facilities at upstream dams and Bath was allowed to build on the shoreline of the river downstream. Most important for state and local communities, the river and its fisheries will be restored to improve the quality of life.

"If you have people focused on the end result, that's when you can make progress," said Kevin Gilbert, a Bath Iron Works vice president.

By comparison, the four lower Snake dams at the center of breaching debates in the Northwest are three times as large -- and produce nearly 1,000 times the electricity -- as Edwards. They provide a link by barge to the Pacific Ocean with Lewiston. But saving endangered salmon in the Columbia and Snake basins is costing $900 million a year according to the Portland Oregonian.

"The Edwards dam is a canvas dike in an irrigation ditch compared to them," Idaho Republican Sen. Larry Craig. "The size and scope of the issues is very different."

Both Craig and Idaho Republican Sen. Mike Crapo oppose breaching because of potential economic impacts and question the authority of a federal agency to force removal of a dam without congressional approval.

Crapo wants to replace these "command and control" approaches to natural resource policy making with one that inclueds local people in the decsion-making.

"These types of decisions will not work in the Pacific Northwest unless we are able to have a collaborative model of decision making," Crapo said.

Building consensus in the Edwards dam effort meant educating the public on the benefits of a free-flowing river, said Brownie Carson, executive director fo the Natural Resources Council of Maine. And the benefits must also outweigh the costs, said Maine Gov. Angus King.

A poll released Wednesday by Boise State University found Idahoans nearly evenly split on the issue of breaching dams to save salmon. Nor is there a clear majority of support for breaching the the Snake dams in Washington and Oregon.

"Whatever the solution, whether it be breaching dams or another approach, it is going to have to have public support to allow it to be realized," Crapo said.

There is strong support in Washington for removing two dams on the Elwha River near Port Angeles that eliminated salmon runs from the river. But Babbitt and Washington Republican Sen. Slade Gorton have been at odds over timing of the removal and money to pay for it.

Goton also tried to link funding for removing the Elwha dams to congressional approval for removing the four Snakedams. He dropped that effort earlier this year.

"There's a high probability we are going to reach a deal," Babbitt said.

If the Elwha dams come down soon, they won't be the first in the Pacific Northwest. Then-Gov. Cecil Andrus dynamited the Clearwater Dam in 1973. the dam, which was owned and given up voluntarily by Washington Water Power Co., was slightly larger than the Edwards Dam. Nationally 120 dams have come down since Sunbeam Dam on the Salmon River near Stanley was dynamited by unknown sportsmen in 1931.

When it was removed, runs of sockeye salmon returned to Redfish Lake by the thousands, until the 1950s when dams were built on the lower Snake River. In the Clearwater, returns of salmon and steelhead improved briefly until the duel effects of ocean conditions and the completion of the lower Snake dams drove both fish to the endangered species list.

With each dam removal the politics changes, Andrus said. But not enough to prompt political leaders to take down large dams like those on the lower Snake and Columbia.

"I don't think the people have the political will to get that done," said Andrus, a former Secretary of the Interior. "They're going to do more studies until the question is moot and the salmon are gone."

Even as speakers praised Edwards Dam owner Mark Issacson, he stayed away from the ceremonies, choosing instead to watch the breaching from the far shore. He said he is convinced that a court would find the Federal Energy Regulatory Commision's decision to remove the dam unconstitutional.

So he doesn't think the Edwards breaching portends a threat to private dam owners like Idaho Power Co.

"This is a house of cards," he said. It will collapse the first time it goes to court."

But damming rivers is a privilege, not a right, said Margaret Bowman of American Rivers, a national environmental group.

"You've got to remember this is a public river, not private property," she said.

The 1986 federal law that requires owners to meet mandatory conditions placed on their licenses -- like providing for fish passage -- threatens the profitability of many dams, Issacson said.

"It's so much easier for federal agencies to get you with unreasonable conditions than with an outright taking," he said.

Craig introduced a bill this year that would require the agencies to analyze the economic and social impacts of conditions before mandating them.

The struggle that led to the removal of the Edwards Dam represented conflicting views of how rivers should serve people. For seven generations the Kennebec served mostly as an industrial river, generating power, moving logs and washing sewage downstream.

Today it still produces power, but logs and sewage are gone. And if the restoration is successful, salmon, sturgeon and striped bass will return and bring with them their own prosperity, said King.

"Progress is never easy," King said. "Everybody wants progress, but nobody wants change."

Rocky Barker
Dam falls; Kennebec flows free
Idaho Statesman - July 2, 1999

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