Report: Dam Removal Effectiveby Barney McManigal
The Times-News, December 14, 1999
WASHINGTON -- Citing the successful removal of three Idaho dams, environmental groups Monday released a report that says dam breaching will restore fish habitats and improve the quality of life in local communities.
The report, released by American Rivers, Friends of the Earth and Trout Unlimited, says more than 465 dams have been successfully breached throughout the nation. Thirty-six such dam removals have occurred in the Pacific Northwest alone, the study states.
"Surprisingly little attention has been paid to the hundreds of dams that have been successfully removed in the U.S.," said Shawn Cantrell, a spokesman for Friends of the Earth. "This report provides valuable information on the ecological, safety, and economic benefits that accompanied past dam removal efforts."
The report said two dam removals on northern Idaho's Clearwater River have successfully restored fish populations that had been declining for decades. The Lewiston Dam, removed in 1973, opened access to hundreds of miles of the Clearwater and its tributaries and increased the number of salmon and steelhead returning to spawn. The Grangeville Dam, removed in 1963, boosted salmon and steelhead return rates in the south fork of the river.
The Colburn Mill Pond Dam, removed in September from Colburn Creek, allowed fish to travel upstream for the first time in more than 50 years, the study states. The creek now provides more than three miles of trout spawning habitat.
In addition to fish recovery, the report says removing the aging dams will improve public safety and protect water supplies.
The study comes at time when the fates of four lower Snake River dams hang in the balance.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is scheduled to release Friday a draft environmental impact statement that will evaluate several plans to aid fish in the lower Snake. Removing the earthen portion of the four dams is one option that will be considered.
American Rivers, which has called the Snake River the nation's most endangered waterway, hopes the report will encourage dam removal as a viable option to restore endangered salmon and steelhead.
"When they hear how successful these dam removals were, we hope more communities, dam owners, and natural resource managers will consider removing dams on their local rivers as one reasonable way to restore them to health and revitalize the communities along their banks," said American Rivers spokeswoman Margaret Bowman.
But Phillip Nisbet, a geochemist and president of Hydrologics Inc. in Salmon, said removing the dams could be more dangerous to fish habitats because it would unleash a flood of built-up sediment.
"There's three trillion tons of soft silt sitting behind those dams," said Nisbet, who added that a plan to retain the sediment would raise dam-removal costs to $3 billion.
Nisbet also said that even if the Army Corps of Engineers decides to breach the dams, the openings would not be completed for 14 years, when it is already too late to save the fish.
Nisbet said he supported a series of dam-breaching alternatives put forward by the Idaho Council on Industry and the Environment. The alternatives include creating migration routes that bypass dams, hatcheries placed in-stream, and strobe lighting systems that guide fish down the river.
Bill Sedivy, executive director of Idaho Rivers United in Boise, said the American Rivers report proves opening the dams will help the environment. He said the Army Corps of Engineers has already said sediment buildup is not a problem.
"These are hearty little fish," Sedivy said. "They can stand a little silt."
Sedivy also said the engineers could probably complete a majority of the removal work in about one year, contrary to Nisbet's claim.
"For the life of me I can't imagine that it would take 14 years for those dams to come down," Sedivy said.
The Idaho congressional delegation has encouraged alternatives to breaching the four dams, saying their removal would be detrimental to the state's economy.
But other groups have said any economic losses from dam-breaching would be offset by new jobs created in other industries.
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