Dam deconstruction - what's next?

  • Dams in the West considered for removal

    Diane Sylvain

Note: This article is a sidebar to this issue's feature story.

Here are some of the other dams under attack throughout the West:

Elwha River dams, Olympic Peninsula, Washington

Built decades ago, these two dams have nearly destroyed what was once, given the host river's size, a salmon fishery nonpareil. Estimates of the Elwha ancestral runs go higher than 350,000 fish; among them were some of the largest salmon ever seen, weighing over a hundred pounds. Technical experts believe that the dams can be removed for less than $25 million, but watershed restoration could add substantially to the cost. Now and then, the Clinton administration displays toughness and persistence, and it has here. The idea is strongly supported by Washington's major newspapers and, according to poll samplings, by most residents of the state. The one serious opponent is Republican Sen. Slade Gorton, who takes a position that may be unprecedented in U.S. Senate history: Spending federal money to remove the dams, he says, would be unfair to taxpayers in other states. (Presumably, Gorton has no problem with U.S. taxpayers subsidizing Columbia River dams and his constituents' bargain-basement hydroelectric rates, which are among the cheapest in the world.) Gorton's opposition may appear hypocritical, to put it gently, and seems inspired by an eagerness to oppose almost anything Clinton supports. But the senator, a former prosecutor, is a tenacious adversary.

Condit Dam, White Salmon River, Washington

Built three miles up this lower tributary of the Columbia River, in 1913, Condit Dam eliminated a productive salmon fishery, though not an extraordinary one like the Elwha's. Its power production averages only 8-10 megawatts, but the dam is 125 feet high; cost-of-removal estimates range from $10 million to $24 million. American Rivers and numerous other organizations have lobbied strenuously for dam removal. There appears to be no opposition, even from the corporate owner, which faces a tough relicensing fight. Odds that the dam will be taken down look good.

Enlo Dam, Similkeen River, Washington/Canada

Although it has been decommissioned for years, Enlo Dam, built early in the century on this Okanogan River tributary, still sits there, blocking salmon passage for 320 miles. There are no fish ladders. Only 35 feet high, the dam could be removed at relatively low cost. However, the Okanogan Public Utility District has proposed to re-operate it, and, according to John Volkman of the Northwest Power Planning Council, "Canada isn't sure it wants salmon with U.S. diseases moving back upriver." Spawners that make it as far as Enlo Dam have already trespassed beyond eight big dams on the Columbia reach. According to Volkman, "They deserve a break."

Lower Snake River Dams, Washington

These four federally built structures - Ice Harbor, Lower Monumental, Little Goose and Lower Granite - have catastrophically disrupted one of the most far-ranging inland salmon migrations in the world. Some determined salmon still reach Idaho's Stanley Basin via the Columbia, Snake and Salmon rivers, having swum more than 800 miles and surmounted eight large dams, but at Redfish Lake - named after the spawning coloration of many thousands of sockeye salmon - there are only ghosts. A decade ago, the idea of removing the four lower Snake dams would have seemed far-fetched, to say the least, but $3 billion has gone for salmon restoration in the Columbia Basin, and overall the fishery is still in decline. Last winter, the Corps of Engineers, which built the dams, released a consultant's study that calls removal the most effective and cost-efficient restoration strategy. Recently, the Idaho Statesman, the state's most influential newspaper, endorsed the idea (the dams aren't in Idaho). Trade-offs are daunting: Each dam produces 300-400 megawatts of power, and they raise river levels for barge traffic, which is an important facet of the regional economy. But then, so were salmon.

Glen Canyon Dam, Arizona

In an interview for a television documentary based on Cadillac Desert, which aired recently on PBS, former Arizona Sen. (and reincarnated American hero) Barry Goldwater averred that, if Glen Canyon Dam were before the Senate today, "I'd vote against it ...Water is important, but it isn't that important."

Goldwater's remark may have galvanized a nascent campaign to drain Lake Powell, if not get rid of the dam. David Wegner, formerly the Bureau of Reclamation's environmental expert in the region, and the Sierra Club and David Brower, among others, have endorsed the idea. But some environmentalists believe this is a truly quixotic campaign, and the dam's constituency - which includes Southern California - seems unopposable for now.

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