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Commentaries and editorials

Washington Will Destroy Dams
to Revive a River

by John Ritter
USA Today, May 2, 2007

PORT ANGELES, Wash. High hopes ride on knocking down two aging hydroelectric dams along the blue-green waters of the Elwha River: robust salmon runs, replenished beaches, restored wildlife habitat, a tourism windfall, access to sacred Indian sites long submerged. But the dams' demise one would be the tallest ever demolished in the USA may play a larger role. Hundreds of dams built in the past century are near the end of their usefulness and pose dilemmas for policymakers: remove them or make costly upgrades to keep them functioning.

INDIAN TRIBES: Dam dispute heads to court

The Elwha River project, which won state approval in March, could be a model for how to bring a river back to life, environmentalists and biologists say. Hundreds of small dams have been torn out around the country in recent years, but none as high as the 210-foot-high Glines Canyon, the taller of the two on the Elwha.

"On this scale, in this type of river, it's a first, says Mike McHenry, fish habitat manager for the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe, whose reservation straddles the river. "We're entering an era where a lot of dams will probably be removed. So we think it's important to document what happens."

The Elwha dams, built in the early 1900s, were to come down in 2009, until the National Park Service announced a delay last week until 2012 because related water projects will take longer than expected to finish. Four other dams in the Northwest will be cleared away over the next three years.

In Southern California, destruction of the 200-foot-tall Matilija Dam is to begin in 2013.

In Northern California and Oregon, efforts to get rid of four hydrodams on the Klamath River got a boost when a federal appeals court in March upheld a key ruling against farmers who draw water from the river. Wednesday, Indians and fishermen seeking to demolish the dams sued the owner, PacifiCorp.

A study by the California Energy Commission concluded that tearing down the Klamath dams and buying electricity at market rates to replace the hydroproduction would be cheaper than upgrades needed to win new operating licenses. The downside is that market-rate power from power plants wouldn't be as "clean" as the hydrogeneration.

Other states seek dam removal

Buoyed by the Klamath study, Western dam opponents want Congress to order economic and scientific studies they hope would justify taking out four dams on the Snake River in eastern Washington, a move long opposed by the Bush administration.

There are even calls despite congressional opposition to restore the once scenic, but now flooded, Hetch Hetchy Valley in Yosemite National Park by razing a major dam whose reservoir stores most of San Francisco's drinking water.

Fears of water shortages caused by climate change could temper the fervor for removing some dams. California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has proposed $4 billion for two dams to bolster the state's water-storage capacity. Democrats who control the Legislature are dubious. Idaho Gov. Butch Otter wants the state to consider more dams as a way to recharge groundwater supplies.

Dam demolition plans usually pit defenders of a dam's original purpose hydroelectricity, irrigation, flood control, navigation against opponents who argue that restoring rivers and protecting wildlife offer the public greater benefits.

The Snake River dams are a classic example. They no longer store much water because sediment has built up behind them. That heightens flood risk in Lewiston, Idaho. The Corps of Engineers wants to protect the city by raising its levee, but the city, its downtown already 3 feet below the river because of the levee, says no.

Farmers have fought dam removal because they'd lose barges that move their wheat to market. But Dustin Ahern of Save Our Wild Salmon says the local economy, including agriculture, would be better served by railroad lines and highways replacing 140 miles of barge travel.

The Snake, the Columbia River's largest tributary, once produced some of the Northwest's most bountiful salmon runs. Today, they've dwindled to a tiny fraction of pre-dam numbers.

The four dams account for about 5% of power generated in the Columbia River's Bonneville system. Whether that would have to be replaced and how much that would cost consumers are in dispute.

"The purposes for which many dams were built may no longer be viewed as valuable," says Richard Palmer, an engineering professor at the University of Washington. "This is an evolutionary thing, and nothing terribly radical."

The Elwha dams, built as the power source for a now-defunct timber mill, generate a tiny amount of non-essential electricity. With no fish ladders to enable salmon to swim upstream, the dams shrunk fish habitat in the river and its branches from 70 miles to 5.

Early resistance to demolition melted away as people saw the benefits, says Russ Veenema, executive director of the Port Angeles Regional Chamber of Commerce.

More tourists anticipated

The city of 20,000 is the popular gateway to Olympic National Park. Healthy salmon runs would attract more tourists. "It would be a huge plus if sportfishing came back to where it used to be," Veenema says.

More than 1 million salmon from all 10 major Northwest species spawned each year in the Elwha system. Today, 20,000 is a good year, biologist McHenry says. Within 20 to 30 years of restoration, "a fairly conservative estimate" is an annual return of 400,000 adult fish, he says.

Once the dams are gone, fish should thrive. Almost all the Elwha lies inside the park pristine, unpolluted, diverse habitat with no human impacts. "You don't find it any better than this," says Amy Kober, Seattle outreach director for American Rivers, a restoration group.

The river, fed by the Olympic Mountains' snowy peaks and glaciers, will revert to its former wild state and may even support white-water rafting and kayaking, Kober says. Salmon spend much of their lives in saltwater, and, as the Elwha's stocks rebound, they'll be food for Puget Sound's beloved orca whales, which have declined partly because of skimpy salmon runs.

Even surfers, who catch waves near the Elwha's mouth in the Strait of Juan de Fuca, are excited about dam removal. They're looking forward to better waves from a buildup of sediment deposits.

But a free-flowing Elwha arguably will affect the Klallams most profoundly three tribes that lived here for thousands of years before Lewis and Clark.

The dams inundated the Klallams' "creation site" on the river where oral history says they originated. Many other traditional sites with spiritual value lie under water, says LaTrisha Suggs, assistant to the tribe's river restoration director.

If beaches return, so likely will clams, a traditional source of food. And to many Northwest tribes, salmon carry enormous cultural significance.

"The tribes hold a special bond with the Elwha River," Suggs says. "Everything that happens around them involves the river. When they speak of the river, it's almost like part of their family."


John Ritter
Washington Will Destroy Dams to Revive a River
USA Today, May 2, 2007

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