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Dam Good Science

by Editorial Board
Columbia Basin Herald, September 18, 2008

Federal study will find real benefits of dam breaching

Please put any and all rhetoric about dam breaching aside for the next 3 to 50 years.

The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) is initiating a study of the benefits to salmon of breaching two dams on the Elwha River, but beware, it could be decades before the full impact is known.

The Elwha and Glines Canyon dams are slated to be torn down in 2012 and hopefully restore more than 70 miles of spawning and rearing habitat for endangered salmon and steelhead.

The dams have disconnected watersheds within the Olympic National Forest and are believed to have reduced salmon habitat in the area by 90 percent.

The dams were built between 1910 and 1913 with the Elwha Dam standing 105 feet high and the Glines standing 210 feet high. The Elwha dams seasonally generate about 40 percent of the power needed at a Port Angeles, Wash., sawmill.

Researchers from federal, state, tribal and academic agencies and organizations are working to determine the ecological and hydrological state of the river after 96 years of being dammed. The information will be used to compare with information gathered after the dams are removed.

Once concluded, we will have physical evidence on the benefits and drawbacks of breaching a dam for salmon. Once gone, about 270 miles of drainage area will feed back into the fourth largest river on the Olympic Peninsula.

It will also release 18 million cubic-yards of sediment trapped behinds the dams.

The studies mean no more guessing by non-government organizations seeking funds to continue their research. No more political grandstanding on the environmental benefits of tearing out dams. No more spinning theories as the truth.

We will have scientific data on how positive it will be or how little impact it had on the salmon. We won't really know until after the USGS is done.

The USGS has maintained a credibility withstanding the scrutiny of both sides of the environmental war. They stay true to their findings and still approach their work with scientific curiosity, rather than work to prove a politically appealing decision.

We applaud their efforts to seek untainted data on such a controversial subject.

Too bad it won't take into account tourism benefits or how to recover lost power from hydro-electric power generation, should larger dams be targeted for removal, like the Snake River dams.

We still believe the clean renewable energy from dams is more important. But we will at least have more information about smaller dam breaching and salmon habitat restoration than ever before.

The USGS stated there are several areas they plan to study and document, including:

The only problem is patience. Many people, who feel passionate about dams versus salmon, are going to feel a bit frustrated by how long it takes to determine the effects.

USGS spokespeople state it will take "A minimum of 3-11 years and up to 50 years of monitoring will be required to determine ecosystem responses following dam removal."

The goal of removing the dams is to restore habitat and improve the survival of salmon. A noble goal worth committing energy toward. But the USGS is taking additional steps of determining the actual impacts. The information will be useful in determining the cost versus benefit factor in removing other dams throughout the state.

We are not talking about Grand Coulee, Wanapum or Priest Rapids, but there are numerous dams remaining long after their ability to generate clean renewable energy has long been gone, such as Enlow Dam on the Similkameen River near Oroville.

The USGS is a federal agency charged with "providing reliable scientific information to describe and understand the Earth; minimize loss of life and property from natural disasters; manage water, biological, energy, and mineral resources; and enhance and protect our quality of life."

With factual data on breaching non-generating dams for improving salmon populations, they will definitely live up to their mission. It will help everyone in making the right determination in breaching the small, old, no longer used dams to benefit everyone.

Editorial Board
Dam Good Science
Columbia Basin Herald, September 18, 2008

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