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Dam's Removal Reshapes Debate

Dave Hogan, The Oregonian - July 2, 1999

A backhoe begins razing Maine's Edwards Dam,
and advocates of breaching four Snake River dams take heart

AUGUSTA, Maine -- When a demolition crew's backhoe allowed the Kennebec River to begin rushing through a break in the Edwards Dam on Thursday, environmentalists celebrated their biggest victory yet in a push to remove some of America's dams.

Their cheers echoed straight to the Northwest, where local and national environmental groups have set their sights on a much larger target: breaching the four lower Snake River dams to help fish.

The Maine dam was the first operating hydroelectric dam ordered destroyed by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which said the environmental harm the dam did outweighed the power it produced.

The breaching supplied momentum and encouragement to advocates of dam removal. And although the Edwards Dam is very different from the Northwest dams, its removal sent ripples of concern through supporters of the Snake dams.

"This is a big notch in the belt for dam removal advocates; we'll see how well that carries them in the Northwest," said Bruce J. Lovelin, executive director of the Columbia River Alliance, a Portland, Ore.-based group representing barge operators, utility companies and other river users.

At the same time, environmental leaders in Maine confidently predicted they would be able to aid dam removal efforts in the Northwest and elsewhere.

Below Edwards Dam, fish populations have been on the rebound in recent years, and after dam removal is completed this year, environmentalists expect the Kennebec's salmon, sturgeon and other fish to show dramatic improvements upriver.

"That is the proof in the pudding, and we're going to be able to deliver," said Brownie Carson, executive director of the Natural Resources Council of Maine, one of four groups that led a 10-year battle against Edwards Dam.

But supporters of the Edwards and Snake dams are skeptical. They say declining fish populations on both coasts are the result of other factors, including pollution, ocean conditions and overfishing.

"We get caught up in the hysteria of removal -- 'If we take these dams out, the fish will come' -- but that's not necessarily what's going to happen," Linda Church Ciocci, executive director of the National Hydropower Association, said in Washington, D.C., last week. Sue Locsin, an Augusta schoolteacher who watched Thursday's dam-breaching with hundreds of other residents, lives a quarter-mile upriver from the dam. She said sewage and other human-caused problems make her doubt that fish populations in the Kennebec River will improve.

She also complained that state officials recently said they might build a dam on a Kennebec River tributary because of the Edwards Dam removal. It would be designed to keep out carp because that fish damages water quality to the point that it imperils other fish.

"There's a lot of short-sighted thinking going on," Locsin said.

Decade of debate The Edwards Dam is being removed after more than a decade of discussions, legal battles and negotiations involving its owners, environmental groups, government officials and others.

In 1989, opponents of the dam formed the Kennebec Coalition to press for its removal. The group included American Rivers, the Atlantic Salmon Coalition, the Natural Resources Council of Maine and Trout Unlimited.

There are other dams on the Kennebec, but Edwards is the first one fish reach as they move upstream. The coalition's goal was to allow fish to move freely along 17 more miles of prime spawning habitat upriver before they encounter the next dam. The only fish passage at Edwards Dam was a fish pump that allowed some river herring to be taken out and trucked upriver, but it had little or no benefit for other fish.

The dam had long powered a textile mill, which had closed by 1984. The Kennebec Coalition focused on trying to get the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to order the dam to be shut down and removed, rather than renewing its long-term operating license.

In 1997, the commission ordered the dam's owners to come up with a plan to remove the dam. Last year, knowing they would have to add fish passage facilities that would cost millions of dollars, the dam's owners signed an agreement that included the environmental groups and various government agencies. The owners agreed to turn the dam over to the state. In return, they did not have to pay for the dam's removal. That set the stage for Thursday's celebration. Demolition crews have removed about 75 feet of the 917-foot-long dam, and the job is expected to be completed this year.

Crucial differences Edwards Dam, however, was very different from the Snake River dams -- Ice Harbor, Lower Monumental, Little Goose and Lower Granite -- in Washington.

Built in 1837, Edwards produced 3.5 megawatts of electricity. The Snake dams produce 1,200 megawatts on average, or enough to power Seattle.

Edwards was 24 feet high at its tallest. Ice Harbor, the shortest of the Snake dams, is 213 feet high.

Edwards provided none of the irrigation or navigation that the Snake River dams provide. The Snake dams allow barges to travel upstream as far as Lewiston, Idaho, and carry huge loads of wheat and other products. Thus the Edwards debate did not include the economic issues that swirl around the Snake dams.

"They're fundamentally different," said Mark Isaacson, president of Edwards Manufacturing Co., which owned Edwards Dam. "You don't have the kind of navigation and irrigation and all the other things (here) that go along with Western hydro projects, which in my view make it infinitely more difficult and complicated to remove a Western hydro project than an Eastern one."

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is studying what should be done to address declining fish populations in the Snake River, and dam breaching is one of the options. The results of that study are to be released late this year or next year.

In the meantime, environmental groups are pushing dam removal in general, and breaching of the Snake River dams in particular, before a national audience in Washington, D.C.

Rebecca R. Wodder, president of American Rivers, called the Edwards Dam removal the starting point for "the new era of dam removal."

She said there are about 75,000 dams in the United States measuring 5 feet or taller, and her group is seeking to bring down only the ones whose environmental and economic damages outweigh their benefits. That is a tiny percentage, she said.

But the Edwards removal has tremendous implications for the Snake River dams, she said, because it shows that dam removal is a rational choice that other people in another part of the country have made after careful consideration.

She attended Thursday's event in Maine, then helped lead a champagne toast with about 80 people gathered at the Natural Resources Council of Maine offices in Augusta. She said she hopes the Edwards removal will spark interest in river restoration, much the way the burning of the polluted Cuyahoga River in Ohio woke people up 30 years ago.

Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, who has made dam removal a priority for the Clinton administration, also attended Thursday's event.

Babbitt would not comment on whether the dam's removal had any importance for the Snake River dam debate. But he stressed that the Edwards debate had shown that communities could decide on whether to remove a dam by weighing the benefits and costs of its operation.

"The importance of the message here is that you can find consensus, whether it's to keep the dam or remove it," he said. "It's a tough, complicated process, but I think it's a very optimistic message that Maine is sending to the country."

Dave Hogan
Dam's Removal Reshapes Debate
The Oregonian - July 2, 1999

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