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Time has Torn Down Opinion of Dams

by William Booth, Washington Post
The Spokesman Review, December 22, 2000

For now, federal agencies steer clear of dam-breaching

VENTURA, Calif. -- It was not too long ago that the call to dismantle thousands of the nation's dams, and thereby return rivers to their natural ways, was considered radical, unrealistic or downright un-American.

Yet today the dam-removal movement has entered the mainstream of public opinion, gaining enough support that policy-makers are seriously considering pulling down hundreds of dams.

States such as Wisconsin and Pennsylvania are already far along in dam-removal efforts. In the past eight years, more than 200 dams have been dismantled, and the pace appears to be accelerating since the deconstruction of the Edwards Dam on the Kennebec River in Maine last year and the amazing return of millions of alewife to their ancestral waters.

"Even I have been surprised with the speed with which the cultural perception of dams has been turned," said Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, who has made removing environmentally harmful and marginally useful dams a centerpiece of his legacy.

How fast has the shift in attitudes been? Remarkably fast. Babbitt recalls being called on the carpet by President Clinton in the summer of 1993 when Babbitt first started advocating dam-busting. "It was a bad moment," the secretary recalled.

But in the past few years, Babbitt said, many Americans and their elected officials, including some governors, no longer see dams as permanent fixtures on the landscape, "like the pyramids," but as chunks of concrete, which in many cases no longer serve much purpose and do a lot of harm by altering naturally flowing rivers and impacting the fish and other species that depend on them.

There are about 75,000 dams in the country, but only a few thousand are likely candidates for removal in the near future. Demolishing even a dozen medium-sized dams could consume billions of dollars and decades of effort -- and come at a huge cost to the environment because of the enormous amounts of silt and sediment trapped behind the structures.

"The sediment issue is a very real and very big problem with the majority of dams in the United States," said Frederico Barajas, a project director at the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, one of the federal agencies charged with dismantling the structures. "You could say that sediment is the problem."

Engineers and ecologists agree that dismantling many of the nation's dams, particularly the big ones that impound water in reservoirs, is nothing like pulling the plug on the bathtub drain. The silt and stone trapped behind the structures can clog the ecosystem downstream.

In many cases, if the sediment were allowed to flush past the dismantled dams, the sand and rocks might smother the rivers, wiping out the very habitat the dam removals were undertaken to protect. Sediment can choke the gills of fish, wipe out their nesting grounds and prove ruinous to endangered amphibians such as some frogs and salamanders. In some settings, the sediments are laced with toxic compounds from industry, mining and agriculture.

To see how great the challenges (and potential benefits) are, one need look no further than the Matilija Dam on the headwaters of the Ventura River, about an hour's drive up the coast from Los Angeles, where the steep and crumbling dam is jammed into a steep canyon in the Los Padres National Forest.

With some fanfare, Babbitt came in October and pulled the levers of a crane to ceremoniously assist in the removal of a 90-foot section at the top of the Matilija Dam.

"The Matilija Dam," Babbitt said then, "is symbolic not only because it could become the largest dam to be taken down anywhere in the world, but also because it is a prime example of dams that are environmentally harmful as well as useless."

Babbitt heralded the removal of the dam as marking "a new era in America," and noted that now "the removal of some dams is more an act of creation than destruction."

But it is clear that it is going to be much more difficult and expensive to remove many dams than it was to build them in the first place.

The dam across Matilija Creek was completed by Ventura County in 1948 to control flooding on the Ventura River, against the advice of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, America's most zealous dam builders, who warned that sediment would quickly choke the reservoir.

The problem is that Matilija Creek and the Ventura River are classic Southern California watercourses. River biologists describe them as "flashy," meaning they often flow at a trickle, but during big winter rains, they can produce huge floods.

Today, the Matilija Dam serves almost no purpose. The reservoir behind the dam is clogged with sediment and will be completely filled by 2010. The dam produces no hydropower and offers little to protect against catastrophic flooding. The structure also is old and potentially dangerous.

The dam's arching walls stretch about 620 feet across the canyon at a height of 200 feet. One recent autumn afternoon, a visitor to the site could see that the dam's concrete face is cracked and leaking, in part because of an alkali-aggregate reaction between building materials. Windows in the dam's outbuildings are smashed, and loose bundles of wires stick out from cracked concrete. The structure looks abandoned and forgotten.

"Pretty spooky, huh?" asked Paul Jenkin, a local activist, surfer and photographer who is campaigning to have the Matilija removed. One government biologist who studies the Matilija said being out on a canoe on the reservoir behind the aging dam at night is a disquieting experience, conjuring midnight thoughts of disaster-movie scenarios.

The erection of the Matilija Dam has severely harmed the natural functions of the Ventura River, so much so that the environmental advocacy group American Rivers has described it as one of America's most endangered rivers.

One of the unforeseen byproducts of its construction is that the dam has robbed the coast of the sediment, causing constant erosion along the shoreline 15 miles downstream, robbing beaches of replenishing sands.

"That is one of the things that many people don't understand," said Elizabeth Maclin of American Rivers, which is campaigning to remove useless and harmful dams. "The rivers make the beaches."

The construction of the dam also has pushed steelhead to the brink of extinction in Southern California. The fish species was listed as endangered by the National Marine Fisheries Service three years ago. Steelhead are rainbow trout that leave freshwater rivers and spend a mysterious part of their lives in the ocean. Like salmon, the steelhead return to the rivers to spawn -- but unlike salmon, they do not necessarily die after mating, and may return up the rivers two, three or four times.

Glenn Greenwald, an ecologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service who has extensively surveyed the Ventura River watershed, says no one really knows how many steelhead once migrated up the river to spawn, but current estimates are that as many as 5,000 adult steelhead returned in 1946 before the dam construction began. Jenkin says old-timers in Ventura still remember how people would take the day off and go fishing when the steelhead made their return trip. The trout were enormous. Today, no more than 200 fish attempt the journey, and they are thwarted, first by a small diversion downstream and ultimately by the Matilija Dam.

Unlike other dams that are mired in controversy, such as the four dams along the Snake River in the Pacific Northwest, most everyone agrees that the Matilija Dam should go.

But there are 6 million cubic yards of sediment stored behind the dam. If the sediment were hauled away, it would take a truckload of muck every five minutes, 24 hours a day, for six or seven years to remove it.

That is one of several proposed alternatives. Another proposed solution is to move the sediment further upstream and stabilize it, shape it, cover it with topsoil and revegetate it. Or engineers could construct a slurry pipeline to pump the sediment 15 miles down to the coast. Or build a temporary railroad.

One other solution is to slowly notch the dam lower and lower, and allow the sediment to flow downstream in phased intervals, perhaps mimicking what would have happened naturally every few years during big winter storms.

Government engineers and environmentalists believe that the lessons learned at the Matilija Dam may show damaged rivers can be made whole again -- but at a steep price.

Depending on what alternative is selected, and whether state or federal agencies contribute to the costs, removing the Matilija Dam and dealing with its sediment could take either two or 25 years and would cost $22 million to $180 million.

The cost of building the Matilija Dam 52 years ago? About $300,000.

Connection: Some NW dams to come down

A handful of dams spanning Northwest rivers are slated for removal. In each case, biologists hope the step will help restore beleaguered salmon.

PacifiCorp, a Portland utility, plans to remove a dam on the White Salmon river in Washington's Klickitat County. Condit Dam is scheduled to fall in 2006 because its owners didn't want to spend $30 million installing a fish ladder.

Portland General Electric announced in May it will remove two dams, on Oregon's Sandy and Little Sandy Rivers, also to avoid costly renovations.

The federal government has purchased two decrepit dams on Western Washington's Elwha River, and plans to dismantle one. Congress has not appropriated the money to remove the other, although there is widespread agreement that it should come down.

Environmentalists advocate removing two dams on Western Washington's Skokomish River. They also seek removal of a long-mothballed dam on the Similkameen River in north-central Washington. In both cases, the dams' owners oppose removal.

The biggest regional debate involves four massive hydroelectric dams on the Snake River in Eastern Washington: Lower Granite, Little Goose, Lower Monumental and Ice Harbor dams. The federal government's salmon restoration plan calls for trying less drastic measures for three to eight years before deciding whether those dams must be breached.

William Booth, Washington Post
Dan Hansen, Staff Writer
Time has Torn Down Opinion of Dams
Spokesman Review, December 24, 2000

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