A River Runs Through It75,000 dams were built. Now a few are coming down.
by Andrew Murr with Sharon Begley
Newsweek, Environment - July 12, 1999
As church bells pealed and thousands cheered, the backhoe scooped out a dollop of dirt and gravel that had been packed against Maine's Edwards Dam. And suddenly the Kennebec River did something it hasn't done since Andrew Jackson sat in the White House: first in a trickle and then in a torrent, it flowed freely to the Atlantic, through a 60-foot hole that workers had earlier punched underneath the dirt-and-gravel bandage. The 917-foot dam is the first that federal regulators have ordered razed against the owner's wishes-because the environmental damage it did by preventing salmon, striped bass, shad and six other species from reaching spawning grounds outweighed the benefits of the .1 percent of Maine's power it provided. Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt was on hand for last week's milestone. "If someone's got a dam that's going down," he tells friends, "I'll be there."
Babbitt can expect to rack up the frequent-flier miles. About 75,000 big dams block American rivers, testaments to the conviction that any river flowing to sea unimpeded is a waste of water and power. But that attitude is under attack. Many of the aging dams kill millions of valuable salmon migrating to sea. As a result, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) is refusing to relicense dams where the environmental costs outweigh the value of the hydropower, or demanding that a dam be retrofitted with fish ladders. That's often so expensive that the owner opts to tear down the dam instead. Portland (Ore.) General Electric will raze dams on the Sandy and Little Sandy rivers, for instance, rather than make repairs. Demolition will free 22 miles of salmon and steelhead spawning grounds.
This year dams will fall from California to Connecticut (map not shown). It shouldn't take long to see results. The Quaker Neck Dam on the Neuse River in North Carolina came down in 1997-98; bass and striped shad are already running again. On Butte Creek in northern California, removing three dams beginning in 1997 allowed the salmon run to jump from zero to 20,000. Those numbers have environmentalists and fishermen eying dams in the Olympic Peninsula, where dozens of populations of salmon are endangered or extinct. The Elwha and Glines Canyon dams, for example, cut the annual runs of salmon and steelhead on the Elwha River from 380,000 early this century to zero. The biggest targets are four hydroelectrics on the Snake River. But many locals oppose razing these giants, which supply 5 percent of the region's electricity, because doing so could raise rates the same amount. Call it salmon vs. watts.
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