Salvation for our dam nation?

by Cally Carswell

On Washington's White Salmon River last October 26th, sirens bleated, a man barked, "Fire in the hole!" and a cavity was blasted in the bottom of the 125-foot high Condit Dam. A few suspenseful seconds passed. Then, the reservoir behind the dam erupted through the hole and became a river again, although the water was so thick with sediment that it looked more like an ashy plume of smoke.

The excitement among conservationists was palpable. The demolition of the Condit Dam -- and that of two dams on Washington's Elwha River, also begun last fall -- kick off grand experiments in river restoration. Both rivers once hosted robust salmon runs. But the dams, built in the early 20th century, weren't outfitted with fish ladders. They blocked access to all but a few miles of spawning habitat, and salmon numbers plummeted. No one knew how fish -- or even riparian plants -- would respond to the reopened rivers. But most everyone agreed that the dams' demise was likely the salmon's best shot at salvation. Sure enough, migrating salmon were spied above the defunct dams this summer.

These events prompted the advocacy group American Rivers to declare 2011 the "year of the river." (A symbolic benchmark was also reached last year: 1,000 dams, most of them small, have now been stripped from U.S. rivers.)

But stories of rebirth like those being written on the Elwha and White Salmon are still more the exception than the rule. Their dams had become obsolete, providing negligible amounts of hydropower that their operators decided they could easily do without. That's not a political reality shared by most of the West's big dams.

So what of the native fish still struggling to adjust to the novel environments those dams created? There's a movement under way to lift them up too -- by simply reinventing how dams are managed. On Utah's Green River, for instance, scientists are experimenting with bigger-than-usual releases from Flaming Gorge Dam when endangered razorback sucker larvae are detected in the river. The idea is to reconnect the main channel with nursery habitat in the floodplain and give young fish a better shot at survival.

And about a decade ago, scientists devised a plan to modify water releases from the Missouri River's Fort Peck Dam in eastern Montana to benefit the little-known pallid sturgeon, which is on the verge of vanishing. But as former HCN editorial fellow Marian Lyman Kirst reports in this issue's cover story, implementing the plan has proven extremely complicated, and the dogged efforts of a handful of scientists and river managers to get wild pallid sturgeon to grow their numbers on their own have so far been largely ineffective. What the fish ultimately need to bounce back remains uncertain. Yet it's clear there are limits to what can be done for pallid sturgeon on an overworked river like the Missouri. There are no easy fixes. And unfortunately, the solutions that offer the most promise for sturgeon may be more than the river's dams -- and all of the people that depend on them -- can give.

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