The past and future of Western dams


The turbines have stilled on the Elwha. Upstream from Port Angeles on Washington State's Olympic Peninsula, we are finally seeing the material effects of a very long campaign to tear down the Elwha and Glines Canyon Dams. These aging structures, which are part of a broader infrastructural crisis around the West, have blocked storied salmon runs since 1913, and critics have sought to eliminate them since the 1960s.

In 1992 opponents seemingly won when President George H. W. Bush authorized removal of the dams, yet only on Wednesday did that process actually begin. Along with the Marmot Dam on the Sandy River, and Gold Hill, Savage Rapids, and Gold Ray Dams on the Rogue River, and with the scheduled end of the Condit Dam on the Big White Salmon and an agreement to tear down four dams on the Klamath River, dam removal seems like an accelerating trend in the Pacific Northwest, yet the history of those Elwha dams contains many lessons, which are not always mutually compatible.

Among the insights is that removal can be a long and bruising process. On a political level, action has happened fastest when there has been broad consensus about removal and when material problems such as replacement opportunities for energy and irrigation are effectively addressed. Even then, however, opponents have managed to delay actions--in some cases by decades--through legislative and litigious resistance. It takes impressive commitment by broad majorities--not 51 percent--to see a process through.

Another lesson is that dams alter nature in ways not always reversible. When engineers opened Marmot, they let the Sandy River scour the impounded sediments because there was little toxic pollution in the watershed. The tactic worked with stunning speed, rapidly developing a natural streambed, but the history of other watersheds preclude such options. The discovery of significant heavy metals and volatile organic compounds slowed and, in some cases, halted dam removal in New England.

At Milltown Dam on Montana's Clark Fork River, breaching went forward due to strong, widespread support, but sediment removal became the largest single cost on a relatively small dam and reservoir. The Elwha dams are larger with much deeper sediments that may contain run-off from nineteenth-century mining activities. Other basins reveal even graver legacies. Chemical tests suggest toxicity is not a concern in the Klamath, but industrial barging, mining, and agriculture will complicate dam removal in the lower Snake River Basin. The battle over the latest Biological Plan for Columbia Basin salmon ensures that the "salmon wars" will sustain discussion about dam removal, but the contingent histories of individual dams ensures that no policy is inevitable.

This is the most important lesson history offers. Contrary to the pithy sayings of George Santayana ("Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it") and Karl Marx ("History repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce"), the past does not repeat itself. Nature and society have been undergoing constant evolution. The contexts change, ensuring that neither we nor nature can reverse course to some preexisting, idyllic state, and that we must learn to live with how the past has constrained our present and future.

This insight is critical for thinking about environmental issues. Although it is crucial to know as much as possible about the past of dammed watersheds, the larger, more important lesson for me is recognizing how the contingencies of time and space have propelled events in ways our predecessors could not anticipate. History shows over and over that we are rather incompetent fortune tellers.

Take for example the undammed Fraser River, in Canada. British Columbians pushed for river development throughout the last century, yet, as Matthew Evenden recounts in Fish versus Power, something always intervened. Decade after decade economic downturns, fishery protests, technological limitations, international diplomacy, and, ultimately, technological innovation kept the river open. Boosters trusted the immutable logic of progress, yet they could not anticipate all the contingencies. Salmon were beneficiaries. The Fraser remains the only major free-running Western river, but not from any farsighted concern about fish.

Therein lies a humbling lesson for salmon advocates. Listening to Tim Palmer or Rocky Barker discuss those four lower Snake dams, I hear an echo of the dam boosters in their belief about the immutable logic of removal. Dam opponents often sound like the missionaries who visit on Saturday afternoon. They know truth, and they are here to convert. I experienced this in spades after my piece in April on how technological changes at Round Butte Dam is possibly altering old assumptions about dams. One reader accused me of drinking the "Kool-Aid," and an editor wanted to know if I was really arguing that "we should throw in the towel on salmon recovery." I privately assured both I wasn't stoned and I still cared about wild salmon, but the exchanges reminded me that our ideas about nature reflect faith as much as science.

This can lead to intellectual rigidity, which is a liability in times of flux, and right now the historian in me thinks that environmental, social, and technological contexts are changing rapidly. As much as we might wish otherwise, this winter's massive snowpack is not the new normal. Every climatological study sees the West getting more arid [pdf] and more energy intensive over the next century, and the latest census reveals the West--already the most urban region of the country--is growing ever more urban.

Combine this with a report of significant declines in groundwater storage, and it sounds like westerners will be more, not less, dependent on dams to capture winter precipitation for drinking and irrigation. The energy grid is growing more diverse, with solar and wind providing a larger amounts of the supply and hydroelectricity also growing as smaller federal and private are retrofitted for generation. Each of these sources has an appeal because of the low carbon emission but also environmental costs. Solar arrays affect habit and construction produces toxic wastes and dependence on rare earth minerals from China. Wind generators take a toll on birds and annoy neighbors with sound pollution.

The litany of problems attending dams is legion and well known. They delay adult and juvenile salmon migration and enhance opportunities for predation. Impounded reservoirs are unnaturally warm. Spillways supersaturate nitrogen content. Turbines chew fish to bits. Dams are fish killers, no doubt about it, but to listen to dam opponents, you would think that engineers are at best dense and at worse malicious, yet the long list of technological innovations in the last two decades, many of which were forced by deserved pillorying of water management agencies and the application of Endangered Species Act listings, has had real effects. Screens are more effective [pdf], spills are better regulated, transport is better measured [pdf], and research is ongoing. I am not Dr. Pangloss. Real problems persist, but dam technology has not been static. The work at Round Butte Dam involves technologies that might be scalable to bigger or smaller reservoirs and thus vastly increase juvenile fish survival at dams. Studies there and elsewhere also show that structures as varied as Glen Canyon Dam and agricultural impoundments on the Canadian prairies can manage downstream water quality and temperatures, which will be increasingly important for fish species as the snowpack goes away.

The connection between the past and future is never a straight line. It is hard enough for me to connect the dots to the past, let alone the future, but the thing that keeps forcing me to reconsider dams and their role in the West is that only they address both the issue of power and water. Critics of the Bureau of Reclamation like to point out that the agency, which has a vested interest in building dams, has a long history of forecasting a need for more dams, but I know of no one who thinks the West won't get drier and more populous in the coming decades. Nor do I know anyone who thinks conservation measures can ameliorate all the coming stresses. With declining snowpacks and groundwater storage, it seems incumbent on dam opponents to explain how to offset the pressures of growth and aridity and climate change and warming rivers other than wishing people would go away.

Essays in the Range blog are not written by High Country News. The authors are solely responsible for the content.

Joseph Taylor teaches in the history department at Simon Fraser University, in Vancouver. He is the author of Pilgrims of the Vertical: Yosemite Rock Climbers and Nature at Risk, which won the National Outdoor Book Award, and Making Salmon: An Environmental History of the Northwest Fisheries Crisis, which won the American Society of Environmental History’s best book award. He lives in Oregon.

Image of lower Elwha dam courtesy Flickr user J Brew.

Felice Pace
Felice Pace
Jun 06, 2011 12:29 PM
Dams are not the answer to the West's current and future water shortages. That's because dams do not create new water - they simply impound what is produced in the watersheds above. They can deal with an occasional one year drought but not with a long-term decline in supply.

The ultimate answer to the West's growing water demand and static or shrinking supply lies in conservation and in what is by far our largest reservoir. I speak here of our upland forests. Forest soils which - when healthy - are about 1/3 empty spaces. These spaces fill with water in the wet season and sustain base flows in the dry season.

Yet westerners have ignored this most important reservoir in favor of the other kind - the ones humans build. We have allowed our forest soils to be compacted and eroded through logging and road building. This has damaged the ability of upland western forests to store and slowly release water. The result is larger floods and lower base flows. As a society westerners need to wake up and recognize how important forests are to water supplies.

In most western river basins agriculture consumes 80-90% of the dry season water. Irrigation engineers tell us this use can be reduced by 10-40% through water conservation. That would take care of the future water shortage. But Ag has been slow to embrace efficiency. And where efficiency has increased supply Big Ag has kept the savings. These folks want to maintain control so they can become the West's primary water brokers.
John DeVoe
John DeVoe Subscriber
Jun 07, 2011 04:41 PM
My organization played a small role in the Marmot removal (though we did negotiate a transfer of 600 cfs to an instream water right to protect the Sandy River) and a much larger role in the Rogue dam removals (you forgot to mention the Elk Creek Dam notching in the Rogue Basin). We're also a signatory to the Pelton Round Butte settlement agreement and have worked for years on the Klamath. Accordingly, we're not just blowing hot air here and hopefully know something about these issues. The author's notion that dam opponents have little more to offer than "wishing people would go away" is ridiculous.

1. Water (and energy) across the West are wastefully used. There are huge conservation and efficiency opportunities across the West that would be cheaper, easier and more river and fish friendly to implement than constructing a bunch of new water storage and hydro projects.

2. Who pays? Until we have a price signal for water in the West (the water itself is free everywhere in the West - no state charges for the use of this public resource), and the project promoters have real skin in the game, we're going to see proposals for new, publicly financed storage projects that result in water that costs several thousand dollars per acre foot. Nothing new there. Why should the public fisc pay for these projects when one can still conserve an acre foot of water in the Central Valley Project or in many parts of Oregon or elsewhere in the West for a couple hundred dollars? Of course we have "water scarcity' in the West. One can never have enough of something that is valuable but given away for free or largely paid for with other people's money. We need a price signal for water. Until we have that, any rationale for new projects seems premature.

2. Increased aridity is NOT a necessary result of climate change everywhere in the West. In parts of Oregon, models predict increased rainfall east of the Cascades. Let's not use climate change as an excuse to resurrect or propose damaging projects that don't pass environmental or economic muster.

3. Increased stream temperatures are a likely result of climate change. However, one of the best strategies to adapt to this issue is to remove dams that impound water, resulting in higher water temperatures. On the Rogue, the simple removal of Gold Ray Dam is estimated to reduce stream temperatures on the main stem Rogue by around half a degree. Dam removal and other restoration measures on the Rogue have made the river far more resilient to the impacts of climate change than otherwise would have been the case.

4. As the Pacific Institute and others have demonstrated, population growth need not and often does not result in increased water demand. We really need to begin to have an evidence based discussion when we talk about population growth and increased water demand in the West. Seattle now has around 400,000 more residents than in the early 1970s, yet it uses less water. Other major western cities including Portland, Denver, San Fransisco and LA have seen their water demand curves flatten or decline with rising population. We need to stop accepting as a given that increased population necessarily translates into increased water demand - it need not and often does not. Be very skeptical whenever population growth is cited as a justification for new dam and storage projects.

5. In Oregon and across the West, we lack rigorous or often ANY water demand evaluation requirements when considering requests for more water. Until we begin to evaluate new requests for water under a thoughtful and rational framework, we're merely accepting claims for water at face value. And, unfortunately, that's exactly how we do it in Oregon. Without a rigorous evaluation of new demands for water, we can't separate speculation from real needs. And there is a lot of speculation out there.

5. Dams tend to homogenize river flow regimes. Scientists tell us that the integrity of natural flowing systems depend on their dynamic character. Streamflows can be considered a master variable that determine the distribution and abundance of river species. Accordingly, before we embark on any new dams or storage projects, we need to understand and protect the peak and ecological streamflows that are central to river health. Oregon and other states are beginning this process now. These flows must be understood and legally protected downstream of any proposed new projects. We're a long way from that result today.

6. Felice Pace also makes very good points about the need for natural storage and one motivating factor behind most storage proposals.

7. Finally, the author attempts to shift the burden of proof onto dam opponents to solve all of the issues and explain why new dams aren't justified. That's telling and backwards. Clearly, the burden ought to be on project proponents to explain why the public should (as it almost always does) pay from the public fisc for projects that degrade public resources, cause environmental harm and, in many cases, benefit a relatively few private parties.

We've already got something like 75,000 dams (many of those are obsolete) in the United States and precious few undammed river reaches, let alone rivers. How many dams are enough?
Doug Large
Doug Large
Jun 09, 2011 12:43 PM
The flippant remark maid by Mr. Taylor about wind generators killing birds is very out dated, but none the less, the propaganda was sent out again!!
Matt S.
Matt S. Subscriber
Jun 14, 2011 02:47 PM
Once again, Mr. Taylor has it wrong, unless he is trying to get a lobbying gig with some hydro company or water supplier.

Who cares if dam removal projects can be a "long and bruising process"? If something good is hard to accomplish does that diminish the need for it? Maybe we should just give up on clean energy efforts because they are just too darn hard.

So, Mr. Taylor, are you suggesting that we should not clean up polluted superfund sites across the world because it is difficult? Do you propose we leave dams in place that have polluted sediment stored behind them for future generations to address when the dams are safety problems? Also, it's a shame you speculate, without facts, that some dams you cite may have polluted sediment problems we can't or shouldn't address. Milltowm Dam removal was a needed and successful river restoration and pollution clean up effort that needs to be replicated at dozens of sites across the country.

I'm so sick of hearing arm-chair unactivists tell us all that we can't turn back the clock and get back to what was there in the past. We know things have changed and will not get back to the year 1500. Does that mean we should not restore functional ecosystems to the greatest degree feasible? No.

The Fraser River is far from "the only major free-running Western River". Almost every other major river system to the north of the Fraser in BC and Alaska is also free of mainstem dams and many sizable western rivers down into California are as well.

You are confused about faith and science. I am a scientist, and the benefits of dam removal are not at all about faith, they are about facts. I challenge you to write an article that shows that dam removal does not positively benefit the ecosystem of a watershed and region. Basic economics and public safety concerns also support dam removal with facts when projected out over a couple decades as dams degrade and alternative energy sources expand and improve.

You again draw the wrong conclusions about the report you cite on groundwater declines. This situation is exactly why we should NOT be building more dams and why we should be focussing on increased groundwater recharge and subsurface water storage. Groundwater storage is far superior to reservoir storage due to the lack of evaporation, improved surface flows, free biofiltration of water, natural flood protection benefits....the list goes on. Combine this with water efficiency measures, agricultural conservation, and wastewater reuse and we have a long-term water policy that starts to make sense. You are reacting blindly to the symptom, as other dam supporters do, and not addressing the problem.

De-centralized solar installation on existing rooftops and developed urban areas does not "affect habitat" as you claim and you cherry pick the problems while ignoring many cutting edge alternative energy solutions.

Yes, it is hard for you to "connect the dots" to the past and the future, I agree. With this admonition, why are you writing article about things you clearly don't understand very well?

You again miss the point in summarizing that dams are the only thing that addresses water and power. This is crazy person talk. Any to finish with a lame blast that dam opponents are "wishing people would go away" shows clearly that YOU are the one that doesn't get it and when challenged by readers that know the facts better than you, you try to misrepresent them and are wishing they would go away and let your misguided assessment stand.

Matt S.
Matt S. Subscriber
Jun 14, 2011 05:50 PM
Its scary to think you might be teaching the perspective in your last couple articles to students at Simon Fraser University!
Joseph Taylor
Joseph Taylor Subscriber
Jun 14, 2011 09:21 PM
I'll ignore the idiot remarks about my sanity, intelligence, political views, and such and simply suggest that civil discourse requires people at least to read the work of an opponent (and I'm less at odds with most views expressed here than respondents realize) before commenting on things they do not know. The virulence of the responses surprises me not in the least. It was why I made the pointed remark about missionaries. Nevertheless, let me suggest again that the main point of several of my pieces about dams is not because I think they are the best thing since sliced bread, let alone angling for "a lobbying gig," but that as a historian, the vector of social, technological, and environmental trends suggests to me that dams are poised for a comeback.

I am obviously less distressed by this than Felice Pace, who is an activist on the Klamath River with good reason to be wary of dams, or John DeVoe, who does good work as the Executive Director of Portland's Waterwatch. The identities of Doug Large and Matt S. are less transparent, but ultimately it doesn't matter. The point is that everyone who has posted has been cherry picking from history in a way that I, as a scholarly historian subject to the peer review process of my discipline.

Contrary to the suspicions of at least some of the respondents, I am not an advocate on this issue but an observer. Mr. Pace, for example, stresses the importance of conservation and efficiencies in irrigation as a non-dam solution. To me that sounds like great but wishful thinking. It is not that I disagree with his complaint about agriculture. In fact, I noted the same problem over a decade ago in an interview with for the now-defunct newsletter Environmental Review ( Water consumption by irrigation, and inefficiencies in the use of water is an old problem, yet we have seen little in the way of reform and ever growing consumption in urban areas. To the extent that there is any forceful change in irrigation allocations, it is mostly to divert water to urban consumers. Forgive me for being pessimistic, but I have little faith that rational management of water is around the corner in a region that has never been able to rewrite the 1872 mining law.

Mr. Pace and Mr. DeVoe also stress the importance of the forests as reservoirs. In the past this has no doubt been a key environmental reserve, one I stressed in my 1996 history of the salmon crisis. (Matt S.: read this internationally recognized, award-winning environmental history before making another fool claim about my professional standing.) However, the key theme in my profession is how the past does not repeat itself. In this case, global warming has already dramatically altered western forests through the expansion of pine beetle devastation (, and the western snowpack ain't what it used to be ([…]/science.1201570). The shifting composition of forests, increased frequency of fires, and decreased snowpack suggest to me that western forests will not be as reliable a source for summer flows as they were in the past.

And so on and so on. The old arguments, as I stated before, no longer seem so persuasive. The old solution seems increasingly at odds with our evolving contexts, and the reality that this region's human population is likely to grow significantly in the next fifty, mostly by the arrival of people who are not as deeply invested wilderness politics or salmon politics or a whole lot of what has shaped the environmental community's A List of priorities, will be less chuffed about building more dams to build more dams. Obviously there are other ways to supply energy, and Doug Large is correct that wind generators are less lethal to birds than they used. But, again, this is cherry picking in two sense. First, wind generators do still kill birds, which is all I had said. Second, Large wants to emphasize how his preferred technology had been improved but not (and the other comments share this tendency) to acknowledge similar improvements in other technologies, including dams. This is the rhetoric of advocacy, which is fine in its place, but it's my rhetoric. I'm a historian who has to maintain a broad view of events over time.

A part of me understands why it would annoy readers of HCN to propose that there will be more dams in the West's future, but I will confess that there is also a part of me--the part that is an unreconstructed historian--that is a bit awestruck by the ahistorical visions of some of the statements made in response to my essay. In reality I sympathize with many of the concerns articulated by Pace and DeVoe in particular, and I really do understand the arguments being made here. Unfortunately, I am not particularly persuaded. The future too often seems to hinge on a vision of time frozen, if not lurching back to a less populated, more verdant and less consumed past, even though western society, technology, and nature are demonstrably hurtling into a novel and disturbing future.
John  DeVoe
John DeVoe
Jun 16, 2011 02:35 PM

Thanks for the response. I don't see any real response here on the merits of many of the issues I raised, particularly the economic issue around "who pays" and the municipal water use issues. Or the notion, as on the Rogue, that removing obsolete dams is one of the most effective ways to make the river resilient to a changed future.

The notion that there is some historical imperative or dialectic at work here that many of us are just blind to is unwarranted. The article recognizes that no policy is inevitable and that history shows us over and over that we are incompetent fortune tellers. Well, I accept that, especially for the fortune teller who sees a future full of big new dams and water projects. There are other issues at work that have not been discussed – such as the current push for fiscal restraint and smaller government that may affect our collective appetite for more big dams and water projects.

And really, how can we talk about new dams and new storage without discussing the fact that we still give away this valuable public resource for free?

For new big projects, the real imperative at work here doesn’t seem to be a historical one but rather an economic one. Under the new economic reality, it seems much less likely that the public will be paying for giant new water projects. Oregon is at or near its debt limit. California has been near default. The federal government is too. Bond issues aren’t flying out the door. Sure, that could change, but until tax receipts start flowing again, I see less appetite for the big projects.

On the municipal and population issues, again, we need an evidence based discussion rather than an exchange of opinions and values. The municipal use and growth issue really does cry out for a rational discussion free from embedded assumptions such as the almost universal assumption that population growth equates to a linear increase in water demand. That just has not been the case in many western cities. Until we can rid these discussions of that embedded assumption, we're working in the realm of opinion and ideology (old arguments anyone?), not evidence and facts. That may be fine if the goal is to promote more storage and projects and water for cities, which is obviously what many municipalities want to promote, but let's be clear that this result is not a matter of history or even, in many cases, the evidence.

Conservation and efficiency are dismissed as "old" arguments and wishful thinking. (And while we're talking about "old arguments" I'd be remiss in failing to note that big dams and storage projects constitute some of the oldest thinking out there on water supply. Old as dirt.) Well, not to the City of Seattle water utility. Not to the Northwest Power and Conservation Council. Not to certain irrigation districts in the Umatilla and Deschutes Basins and elsewhere. There are certainly examples of places in the West that have effectively embraced conservation and efficiency. I'm reasonably confident this will spread as the benefits of huge avoided capital costs in some cases (see Seattle) and other benefits play out. I would really urge anyone who is interested in municipal water conservation and efficiency to go peruse the Seattle Public Utilities website and read some of the planning documents for the utility.

People, including apparently the author of this article, want western water to radically change overnight, but that's not how it's going to happen. Change is going to be incremental over decades, but it is surely happening and coming in many basins across the West - and in many cases, like the Deschutes Basin, one factor in causing these changes is the increase in population. I don't necessarily agree that the new westerners won't give a damn about the rivers of the West or salmon or cold water habitat. My experience is that many of the newcomers become some of the strongest defenders of our natural heritage in the Pacific Northwest. I don’t see that changing.

So again, we have something like 75,000 dams in the nation. Many of those are obsolete and serve no useful function and ought to be removed. How many are enough?
Jen S
Jen S
Sep 23, 2012 04:56 AM
I need to correct someone here. The Peace River is under threat of Site C dam, the third dam in the same river and they are close to each other. The first dam is called "WAC Bennet dam" the second is the Peace Canyon if i remember.
The Site C will destroy migration of fis, elk, moose etc, its also home to many different types of birds, especially the Bold Eagle, a town, farms, the land is unstable, a forest, rare level one and 2 good farming soil, the WAC Bennet damn has cause mercury in the resovire etc etc.
The dam will cost well over 8 billion dollars and its only for fracking oil to be shipped to asia, the only thing we get out of this damn dam is a massive damage and a very large debt.
The mighty Peace River is the corridor to the Yukon to Yellow Stone Park and brings moister to the land.
The dam will cause other issue to our airport, very scenic awesome highway 29 to the halfway lookout that looks over the Peace Valley River and to the town "Hudson Hope". It takes just over 1 hr drive Fort St John to Hudson Hope.
We have 2 years to fight against this Site C dam, and we already fought it before years ago and and we have been fighting against it for over 4 years now. We do special events, like bringing people to "paddle For The Peace" and we paddle down river, other events and even have a respectful protest, not violent.
The river that goes up north, it is blocked by 2 dams in the river and trying to stop a third one.

~~Canada, BC.
Jen S
Jen S
Sep 24, 2012 12:23 AM
I see no comment that responded to mine