Deconstructing the age of dams

  • Portion of California's Sacramento Valley

    Diane Sylvain
  • Organic rice farmers Harlan, Homer, Eldon & Wendell Lundberg

    Lundberg family
  • Western Canal Dam diverts water from Butte Creek into Western Canal

    Gary Brown
  • Snow geese flock to a California rice field

    Calif. Rice Industry Association
  • Manager Bob Herkert with son, Hans

    California Rice Industry Association
  • Pipes wo;; carru Western Canal under Butte Creek

    Western Canal Water District
  • Gary Brown, general manager of Western Canal Water District

    Water District photo
  • Marc Reisner

    Ty Barbour photo
 

In the early fall of 1991, I got a call from a cheery young man named Bob Herkert, who introduced himself as the field manager for the California Rice Industry Association. He wanted to invite me on a "good will" tour of the Sacramento Valley rice-growing region, where he said I would see two salmon-blocking dams that one of Northern California's largest irrigation districts planned to blow up.

The irony of a water district eager (so he said) to demolish its own dams threatened to fell me.

Since the publication of my book, Cadillac Desert, in 1986, I had been anointed a Public Enemy by many Westerners, especially California irrigation farmers, and I figured that no farmer liked me less than one whose crop is rice. Californians tend to be blasé about the profoundly unnatural acts they have performed with water (the creation of Los Angeles, for example), but you can still slacken some natives' jaws when you inform them that their state raises half a million acres of rice. In fact, in the years following publication of my book, I was being paid decent money to exploit this fact on the lecture circuit, lampooning a monsoon crop grown in a desert state.

But if the rice farmers were as incensed with me as I suspected, why were they inviting me on a good-will tour? And if rice doesn't just like to soak up water but likes to stand knee-deep in water, how could a district full of rice farmers even think about destroying its water-diversion dams? It smelled like a setup, but I'd already agreed to go.

A setup it was. My welcoming committee was not the half dozen "friendly-as-hell-despite-everything-you've-said-about-them" farmers promised by Herkert, an innocent-looking country boy from Colusa, Calif., with killer political instincts; it was 19 tight-lipped farmers and industry leaders waiting with claws bared. After a debating session that, over lunch, came fairly close to a food fight, everyone settled down, we conceded each other some points, and a temporary truce was declared. Then my adversaries, whom I was secretly beginning to like, led me through the history that was about to culminate - perhaps for the first time in the American West - in an environmentally inspired deconstruction of dams. How could we have reached this point?

Three strikes against rice

Although rice has been grown in California since 1912, it wasn't until the last couple of decades that it began to acquire a sorry public image. One obvious argument against rice - especially in an overpopulated, semi-arid state - is its water demand.

Actually, rice raised on the most efficient California farms uses less water than an irrigated pasture of alfalfa, whose evapotranspiration demand is at least 4 feet per acre per year; rice grown on hardpan soils can survive on three and a half feet.

Yet the state's 400,000-500,000 acres of California rice guzzle roughly as much water as 6 million people in the Bay Area, and the gross crop value is only $500 million or so. The Bay Area economy, which is largely dependent on imported water, is worth nearly $200 billion, so one could argue that the rice region's water would be better used there. Earlier in the century, the same line of reasoning resulted in Los Angeles.

Meanwhile, the rice-growing district with by far the greatest thirst, the Glenn-Colusa Irrigation District, spent the 1970s and 1980s stonewalling fish and game agencies which asked for effective fish screens across the district's huge intake pipes at the Sacramento River.

Publicity about the obstructionist tactics of its law firm (Minasian, Minasian, Minasian, Spruance, Beber, Meith, and Soares - the name alone a dilatory strategy) was so damaging to the rice industry that the California Rice Industry Association helped overthrow the district's board of directors. Today, with a new board, law firm and general manager, the district has become one of California's most progressive.

Yet another public-relations meltdown came from rice farmers' use of pesticides. Concentrated in return flows from the heart of the Sacramento Valley, the chemicals entered the Sacramento River just upstream from the city of Sacramento, which draws some of its drinking water from the river. (If you are going to taint some city's water supply, it shouldn't be the state capital's.)

The residue was enough to affect the water's flavor, if not its potability, and even though the Sacramento Valley grows a hundred-odd crops - most of which are chemically sprayed - suspicion fell mainly on rice.

Still, nothing was blackening the industry's reputation more than its habit of blackening the air. Rice stalks, or straw, are inordinately high in silica; it is tough stuff, and won't decompose as readily as most plant detritus. Harvesters leave the straw behind, and rice farmers have to get rid of it before they can plant next year's crop.

In Asian countries, most rice and wheat straw is converted to newsprint, or compressed into bricks for home construction - you can do all sorts of things with its durable cellulose.

In the United States, still content to gnaw its forests away, the market for agricultural straw is miniscule; it is most commonly used to control erosion in wildfire zones. Lacking an economic alternative, California's 2,000 rice growers simply burned it.

While the state Air Resources Board regulated the practice by issuing burning permits based on daily weather forecasts, interior California winds are notoriously shifty. During one famous smokeout, a thunderhead-size plume from the rice region blew into Sacramento and set off smoke alarms in tony shops on Capitol Mall. With a dispatch some found startling, the state Legislature, in 1991, drafted a bill phasing out rice-straw burning over the next 10 years.

After some howling, the rice industry association decided to give in. Despite bitter objections from many of the farmers it represents, who sensed that any alternative to burning would cost more than matches and kerosene, the association endorsed the burning phaseout after inserting a contingency clause in the bill for hardship cases.

Meanwhile, to avert even more regulation, its members launched a pesticide-reduction program, switching to compounds that biodegrade more quickly and storing return flows in ponds to give the chemicals more time to break down.

The pesticide-reduction program was already a demonstrable success by the time the growers asked me to meet with them. Between 1983 and 1992, estimated rice pesticides entering the river declined from 40,000 to 218 pounds, an achievement that won a rare commendation from the California Environmental Protection Agency.

Burning was tougher. The only alternative straw-removal technique that seemed efficient and affordable - if you had a relatively cheap and ample water supply - was flooding fields after harvesting the rice. A number of farmers had already tried it, generally with success. Soils in the central Sacramento Valley tend to be fine, river-borne silts compressed over eons into something like pottery clay; its dogged impermeability is the main reason rice thrives where most other crops fail.

If you flood a field 6 inches deep in early October, you're still likely to have standing water in mid-November, when California's rainy season generally begins. By flooding the fields in the fall, when temperatures are still warm, the decomposition of the rice stalks is accelerated. Rain during winter and spring finishes the job.

And there was an unexpected boon: Growers who had experimented with fall flooding told of waking up on winter mornings, when the Pacific Flyway's waterfowl migration season was in full swing, and seeing ducks, geese and shorebirds mobbing their fields.

Waterfowl like water, of course, and many also like rice; harvesting typically leaves behind 200-300 pounds of grain to the acre. But the birds' interest in flooded rice fields was so striking that waterfowl biologists came in to see what was going on. They discovered a whole new water-based food chain that had evolved in a few weeks - midges, annelid worms, copepods, crayfish. It was a vast, diffuse, high-protein larder for the famished birds, whose migratory ordeal can claim at least a third of their body weight.

Sensing a spectacular opportunity, the rice industry association was poised to sell fall and winter flooding to environmentalists and a perhaps dubious public (What? They want even more water?) as the perfect synthesis of farming and habitat.

In 1992, The Nature Conservancy, keen on creating new habitat on private lands, hired me as a consultant to help it and the rice association deal with the vexing issue of finding more water. The amount necessary - probably hundreds of thousands of acre-feet with the burn phaseout in full force - assured that this would be no cakewalk.

To make the task more difficult, between 1987 and 1992, California experienced its severest drought since the Dust Bowl of the 1930s. Water rationing was so universal and in some places so harsh that memories of it would persist for a good while.

Yet the state's rice association began promoting winter-flooding just as the drought ended, while some elementary math - several inches of water applied to several hundred thousand acres - suggested that the program might require more water than that used by the cities of San Diego and San Francisco combined.

Even worse, growers would be drawing water from rivers in the fall, when flows are lowest and salmon migrations are under way. To maintain flows for salmon and steelhead and other users downstream, dams would have to release more water, and reservoir levels would drop; and when the next drought came, rationing would be even more severe.

In so many words, the rice growers, in complying with one environmental law - the Rice Straw Burning Reduction Act of 1991 - might violate half a dozen other laws or rules, including the Endangered Species Act. But they might also be creating new or better habitat for species - Aleutian Canada geese, Ross' geese, sandhill cranes, giant garter snakes - protected by the same act.

However ironic and bureaucratic the situation, the water-use conflicts were real, and biologists with California's Department of Fish and Game were the first to recognize them. While the state's waterfowl division waxed enthusiastic about flooding rice fields, its fisheries section was loudly skeptical.

In the environmental community, similar schisms showed up: A waterfowl-group biologist complained about environmentalists' "obsession with fish, fish and only fish," while fish-rights activists skewered birders who portray waterfowl hunting "as a blood sport while murdering salmon is fine and dandy."

Another environmentalist - a real one, she called herself, not "a biologist on the payroll of some hunters' group" - groused about a program whose hidden purpose was "to breed more ducks for rich hunters to kill."

John Roberts, the state rice association's unlikely executive director - a vegetarian Republican who was the original drummer with the rock group Kansas - was flummoxed by the environmentalists' skepticism, and called a couple of times a week to tell me so. Meanwhile, Herkert, the association's field manager, was running around looking for "fish-friendly" water, which seems to exist only in certain months of wetter years.

One strategem would have been to slow the burning phaseout, which had been put together on the assumption that markets for straw would materialize. Environmentalists and the administration of Republican Gov. Pete Wilson agreed on almost nothing except rice straw's potential as a substitute for lumber and pulp. However, finding a market would take time, and when the association's board flirted with a two- or three-year burn-phaseout delay, early reaction from the clean-air lobby caused them to drop the idea like a lump of plutonium.

One group gets radical

The Western Canal Water District, where I had begun my good-will tour, was the one entity in the rice region that had managed to pick a clean route through this obstacle course.

The district had a couple of million dollars in the bank and it offered to invest it in the demolition of its two diversion dams and some relatively inexpensive piping. Whatever it took, the district said, in addition to helping migratory birds, it was going to do salmon more good than harm.

I had taken a liking to this district, in whose offices I had been roasted in 1991. Western Canal's most prominent board member, Homer Lundberg, was the angriest of my 19 adversaries, but ultimately I understood why: The Lundberg family runs the largest organic rice-growing operation in the United States and maintains a winter bed-and-breakfast for huge flocks of waterfowl - their droppings are the farm's principal fertilizer - by permitting no hunting on any of its land. ("It hurts," Homer told me later, "when we run what amounts to a pesticide-free wildlife refuge and people still don't think of us as environmentalists.")

Gary Brown, the district's general manager, whose physique is extra-large and who looks faintly undressed without a holster and gun, is one of the most tireless conservationists I have ever met. Brown is also a rice-region rarity: a male in a hunting culture who doesn't hunt.

"I couldn't shoot at a duck," he once told me. "I'd feel too sorry if I actually hit one."

Western Canal's water supply flows by aqueduct from Oroville Dam, a gigantic state-financed structure on the Feather River, the Sacramento's biggest tributary. But as the canal meanders west and north, it irrigates only about half its district before running into Butte Creek, which drains another watershed. To get water to the district's 30,000 acres on the other side of the creek, two small retention dams block the creek. The dams keep Oroville water from going downriver and allow big pumps on the other side of the creek to suck it right back out.

These dams are semi-removable concrete-and-flashboard structures, connected to a river island; when their six-foot wooden flashboarding is taken out at the end of the irrigation season, an athletic salmon can jump upstream. The dams also have primitive fish ladders around the sides. Even so, a slow-learner salmon or steelhead can spend many hours trying to surmount them, and once it does, the unscreened pumps are powerful enough to suck up adult fish, not to mention inch-long juveniles.

"We're the second biggest rice district in the valley," mused Gary Brown. "Our water is cheap and we've got lots ... In a drought, we might be delivering through the winter, and then you can't drop the dams at all.

"So we got to thinking, good God, we've got wild fall-run chinook in the river; that's the gene pool for the hatchery fish that keep the whole salmon industry from going down the tubes. We've got the spring-run chinook in here and they could go on the endangered species list. If that happens, commercial fishermen can't fish because the spring-run feeds off the coast with the fall-run, and you can't tell them apart. Meanwhile, everyone who diverts Sacramento River water from here to L.A. is gonna take a hit. We're on a spring-run tributary, so we get blamed. We've got steelhead in the creek, too.

"I have to be careful sometimes not to get too far ahead of my board, but this was a no-brainer. They all said: 'We're gonna take those dams out. And then we've got to go to work on the rest of the watershed.' "

A 'lost cause' that wasn't

The district wasn't going to give up any water. It was simply going to run its water in pipes under Butte Creek instead of damming the creek to pump water across. But it was certainly going to spend some money.

Before dams, the spring-run was California's most abundant salmon race, the stock that sustained a now-extinct inland fishery.

Spring-run spend months hunkered in cold river pools before they run up Sierra rivers in the fall, crashing through Class V rapids and leaping low waterfalls. They do not go ripe (inedible) until the final spawning surge, so they were fished inland, where it was easier than catching them at sea.

Some 700,000 salmon used to stream through the Golden Gate and spawn in 40-odd Sierra streams; 21 turn-of-the-century canneries processed their flesh.

When the Age of Dams flowered after World War I, the species began to disappear in river after river. Shasta Dam and some hydro projects upriver knocked out the upper Sacramento run, the greatest of all. The San Joaquin run, another 150,000 spawners, went to oblivion in 1950, when Friant Dam went up across the lower mainstem. Runs of 20,000, 30,000, 50,000 fish went extinct on other rivers as more giant dams were built in the '50s, '60s and '70s. The new structures were so high that their reservoirs sometimes buried middle-size dams upstream.

By the late 1980s, pure spring-run stock spawned in only three or four small Sacramento River tributaries, one of which was Butte Creek. But neighboring watersheds to the north, Mill Creek and Deer Creek, were obstructed by fewer dams, and until the 1990s, efforts to rebuild the vanishing stocks focused mainly on them.

"Butte Creek," says Paul Ward, a Department of Fish and Game biologist assigned to spring-run habitat, "was widely perceived as a lost cause."

Along its valley reach, eight irrigation diversion dams had been built; upstream of those diversions, in a gorgeous, deeply incised volcanic canyon, are two small hydropower dams owned by Pacific Gas and Electric and a private hydro project spurred by subsidies from Congress during the 1970s oil scares.

The fish are delayed, at least, by the rice growers' diversion dams, and, if they make it into the canyon they come to the first hydro dam, a two-story structure that some salmon can jump when flows are high and the dam becomes a waterfall.

Spawner counts fluctuated greatly from year to year, but the unmaking of California's natural hydrologic regime pointed to an inexorable decline. Finally, during the 1987-92 drought, the total state population was estimated at fewer than 500 fish.

Then in 1993, the drought was chased off by a banner year, which rushed the juveniles to sea before too many were devoured by predators or captured by the huge pumps in the delta, which ship water to Central and Southern California. Two years later, in 1995, when spring-run from the Class of 1993 returned to spawn, there was great early runoff for a clean upriver migration.

In the fall of that year, so many fall-run spawners were coming back to Butte Creek that farmers got off their harvesters and drove over to take a look.

At the 10-foot Parrott-Phelan dam, just outside the city limits of Chico, Gary Brown watched six big spawners trying to leap the sloping downstream face - at once. During 1979, only 10 fish had made it as far as Parrott-Phelan Dam.

By early winter of 1993, the end of the run, California state biologists had counted at least 7,500 fish - the most since World War II, and more than twice the number in all other streams combined.

Butte Creek earns respect

A couple of years earlier, if you mentioned Butte Creek, no one seemed to know where it was. Now everyone did.

The assistant general manager of Southern California's Metropolitan Water District came up for a look, along with several members of his staff. Since half of Southern California's supply comes from Northern California, and since a spring-run listing might shut down the delta pumps for long periods (listing the winter-run chinook had already produced that result), the Met had a vital stake in salmon recovery.

Representatives of San Joaquin Valley agriculture were in the same boat. They showed up on the heels of their sparring partners, lawyers with the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Environmental Defense Fund. Herkert and I, who were busy running this tour service, wondered whether we should lease a Gray Line bus.

Fish and Game biologists, meanwhile, had sensed a larger opportunity in Western Canal's decision to take down its two dams. The original plan involved an under-the-river siphon to get water to the other side of the district, and little else. Now the state wanted to expand its scope.

If some lateral canals were joined to the district's northside canal, and some water exchanges were worked out, then smaller districts up- and downriver could demolish their own Butte Creek dams; fuller flows would remain in the creek.

The Bureau of Reclamation, which dreaded a spring-run listing as much as anyone, agreed to fund a $130,000 feasibility study, even though none of the districts were in its immediate service area. The study concluded that Fish and Game's scheme made plenty of sense. However, the expanded project - which would take out two more dams (including the tallest), relocate a troublesome diversion on nearby Big Chico Creek, and add several miles of canals - would nearly triple the original $3 million cost.

The two downriver districts that agreed to take out their dams were unwilling to contribute, even though they lease land to duck clubs where memberships can cost more than a Lamborghini car.

In the end, financial rescue came mainly from two sources, each improbable until you fathomed what was at stake: the Metropolitan Water District and farmers from San Joaquin Valley.

The money was already there, waiting to be spent. The Central Valley Project Improvement Act, enacted in 1992, created a Restoration Fund, financed mainly by surcharges on San Joaquin water deliveries, that had been looking for projects exactly like this. A couple of years later, several of the state's urban water districts, principally the Metropolitan Water District, embraced enlightened self-interest and created a similar fund, which is known as Category Three, with nearly identical goals.

A week after the disbursing committees for both funds agreed to a three-way split with the Western Canal Water District, I called Gary Brown to offer congratulations. The shock of partnering with the most hated urban water district in the West still had him in the recovery room.

"A few years ago," he mused, "I might have bet 500 bucks that no one from the Metropolitan Water District would voluntarily set foot in our district. The only thing less imaginable than that was hearing my board thank God that they did."

Dams will fall ... like dominos?

This August, the three siphons, each one 10 feet in diameter, were being laid into place under Butte Creek, replacing the district's diversion dams.

Constructing the lateral canals comes next; the dams will come down in midsummer of next year.

The old salmon-trapping diversion on Big Chico Creek, which hosts fall-run fish and occasionally some spring-run, has already been relocated and fitted with a state-of-the-art fish screen. During critical migration periods, 40 cubic feet per second of extra flow is now reserved for the stream.

Meanwhile, in Washington state, on the Elwha River, the two structures that top most people's list of dams that ought to be destroyed first are still in place, thwarting the restoration of salmon runs that once numbered in the thousands. Their removal has been planned, discussed and negotiated for a number of years; the betting odds are that it will be years before they come down.

With the possible exception of a dam in eastern Oregon, it is the Western Canal, McGowan and Howard Slough dams on Butte Creek that are going to be the first Western dams dismantled solely for the sake of fish. In California, they probably won't be the last.

With some funds from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and the Hewlett Foundation, William M. Eier Associates, a fisheries consulting firm, and I are assessing the possibility of removing, or at least modifying, the two Pacific Gas and Electric dams that block salmon access to the pristine upper canyon reach of the Butte Creek.

If the quality of the habitat seems to argue for removal or modification, PG and E has promised to be "open-minded."

A similar assessment may soon be under way on Battle Creek, a more developed small-hydro stream that could, according to some biologists, host even more salmon than Butte Creek.

Meanwhile, watershed associations joining landowners and conservationists have been formed to restore Mill and Deer creeks. Last January, when runoff reached record levels during a 40-inch storm series, nature enlisted in its own cause, blowing out a Deer Creek dam.

Can other Western states find inspiration in this? That is the tantalizing question, especially if one subscribes to the notion that California is such a peculiar state that some things that happen here can occur nowhere else. Pet cemeteries, three-hour commutes (one way), and billion-dollar wildfires may be unique to California; what about consensus on removing dams?

For Butte Creek's dams to come down, a remarkable set of circumstances had to come together. The rice-straw burning phaseout forced farmers to look to flooding as an alternative. The potential impact of fall water diversions forced them to explore dramatic mitigation measures - among them the removal of dams.

Meanwhile, the drought, which hastened the stupefying decline of the spring-run and other fisheries, forced everyone to get serious about saving fish. The spectacular rebound of Butte Creek's salmon with the dams still in place let people imagine how things might be if we made life easier for the fish.

At the same time, a Bay/Delta Accord, negotiated in 1994 as a kind of Bosnian truce on water wars, gave urban water managers, farm-industry leaders and environmentalists an opportunity to know each other - which is to say, to stop demonizing each other. Erstwhile antagonists have become, if not exactly friends, then at least friendly. More important, they discovered that they have the same goals.

In its scarcity, a vanishing species attains peculiar majesty: A spring-run endangered listing might mean that fishermen can't fish, farmers can't farm and environmentalists lose the Endangered Species Act in the political whirlwind that follows. That has driven environmental restoration in California, the nation's wealthiest state, and now it has become a growth industry.

The Central Valley Project Improvement Act Restoration Fund is amassing $40 million to $50 million a year; contributions are piling up faster than they are being spent. Category Three funders have pledged $180 million over three years. Last year, California voters, who have finally lost patience with the initiative process (most measures on the ballot lost), still showed their environmental colors by approving Proposition 204, a water-and-restoration package contributing about half a billion dollars more. A matching federal contribution could double the amount.

Suddenly, there is all kinds of money around that can be spent - that has to be spent - on restoration. California's environmentalists have been on the losing side of many, if not most battles, but now, at least, they are rich.

It cost a great deal of money to build thousands of dams throughout the American West. It will cost a lot of money to take some of them down.

You need money for replacement power, for new water-delivery infrastructure, for buyouts of affected parties, for indemnification. You need money to get rid of accumulated silt and debris behind dams, if you can figure out what to do with it. Thanks to money - and to an odd, serendipitous consensus - dam deconstruction has acquired serious momentum in California. It has even captured the imagination of people more used to lobbying for new dams.

If history tells us anything, what happens in California is going to happen elsewhere. That is not always a curse.

Note: a sidebar article, listing other dams under attack throughout the West, accompanies this feature story.