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Economic and dam related articles

Dam Controversy Stretches Back to Inception

by David Johnson
Lewiston Tribune, December 6, 2009

Some heralded Dworshak construction, but others feared loss of wildlife, habitat

OROFINO - The possible closure of Dworshak State Park marks the latest in a legacy of controversy surrounding construction of one of the highest straight-axis dams in the world.

"This project will have tremendous benefit over the years on northern Idaho," Col. Frank D. McElwee of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in Walla Walla said in the summer of 1965. "We cannot be too optimistic."

Construction on Dworshak Dam started that year with drilling of a diversion tunnel. For the next eight years, the North Fork of the Clearwater River flowed through the tunnel until, on Jan. 26, 1973, former Orofino Mayor A.B. (Bert) Curtis tripped the final ceremonial bucket of more than 6.6 million cubic yards of cement used in the monolith.

"I have but one further thought," Curtis, considered to be the ramrod behind the dam's construction, said at a dedication ceremony a few months later, "and that is I wish that Dworshak could have been 50 feet higher to make another million acre-feet of usable storage possible."

The words of McElwee and Curtis were countered, however, by the likes of Mort Brigham of Lewiston and Idaho author Cort Conley.

"This means almost total disaster for the whitetail deer and undetermined but heavy damage to the finest elk herds in the United States," Brigham, an outspoken conservationist, said in 1962 after Congress authorized construction of the dam. "The steelhead run up the North Fork will be wiped out."

Conley labeled the dam project "one of the worst boondoggles in the history of Idaho. It provides a little bit of flood protection for those who are silly enough to build in a flood plain."

Flood control, indeed, was the foundation upon which the dam was built. In 1948, the Vanport area of Portland, Ore., was deluged by a swollen Columbia River and a disaster was declared. People looked upstream for ways to avert a repeat. In Idaho, the Clearwater River was known to rampage to the point of people proposing the Kooskia Dam, which would have blocked the main Clearwater River.

(bluefish: suggests a reading of Should We Trust by Lynn Stutter )

But uncounted people, including U.S. Sen. Henry Dworshak, spoke out against the Kooskia proposal. Five years later, the corps held a public hearing in Orofino at which Bruce's Eddy Dam (later to be named after Dworshak) was proposed.

"It (the North Fork) was an awful good river to dam," Robert Werner, publisher of the Clearwater Tribune and a dam advocate, later said.

Even U.S. Sen. Frank Church championed the dam's construction early on. But when environmentalists continued to bash the idea, Church was said to have heaved a sigh of relief when Dworshak's name was attached to the dam.

Dworshak had served on both the House and Senate Appropriations committees and, after securing around $2.5 million in planning and design engineering funds, was considered the principal cog in the political machinery behind the dam project.

Those who remember, however, both credit and blame Curtis for being the person behind the Dworshak story.

"Heavens no," Curtis said, when asked by the Lewiston Tribune in 1985 if he had any regrets. "We did it in a methodical, practical way. I'm very happy with it. I think it's been a great thing. Right now we're using that water for more than we ever did before."

Maybe so in 1985, say those who are disappointed with annual drawdowns. Initially, the pool was kept almost full throughout the summer. But demands to help flush hatchery fish downstream, bolstered by court rulings that require the release of water, say critics, have left recreational opportunity high and dry.

David Johnson
Dam Controversy Stretches Back to Inception
, December 6, 2009

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