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Know the West

The power politics of dam removal


PORT ANGELES, Wash. - Sen. Slade Gorton, R-Wash., startled critics and supporters alike last fall when he announced he favors removing one of two hydroelectric dams on Olympic National Park's Elwha River. At that time, Gorton, the Senate's most outspoken opponent of dam removal, pledged his support in the form of a trade: He wanted environmentalists to first drop demands for removal of dams on the Columbia and Snake rivers.

Then, at a town hall meeting here Feb. 7, Gorton, chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, presented more conditions: Taking out the dam must not threaten municipal water supplies; the upper dam, the Glines Canyon Dam, must be left in place for 12 years while the benefits of lower dam removal for returning salmon are studied; and no dams on the Columbia or Snake rivers could be breached or removed without congressional approval. The senator also said he is close to introducing a bill that would legislate these conditions before a penny is appropriated for dam removal.

"I'm not doing this because I think it is a great idea, it is just the best alternative available," Gorton said at the meeting, adding that scientists have not proven that removing dams will restore salmon populations. "We are asked to accept on faith that (ecosystem restoration) will work. You can get experts to tell you whatever you want to hear."

Conservationists say removing one dam at a time will do little to help salmon, and that pulling the Columbia and Snake River dams into the deal is not a fair trade. "All the agencies and conservation groups supporting this restoration have stressed that the Elwha situation is unique," Shawn Cantrell, Pacific Northwest regional director for Friends of the Earth, said at the meeting. "We have a pair of outmoded dams on a pristine river system in a national park. The Elwha has little in common with the Columbia and it is a disservice to both to combine them."

'A cautious approach'

The Elwha River dams, built early in the century by Olympic Power Co., have been controversial from the start. The lower Elwha Dam has no provision for fish passage, a violation of Washington state law. When a game warden reported the shortcoming soon after the dam was finished in 1913, the state ordered Olympic Power to build a fish hatchery to make up for lost salmon, but the hatchery failed after a few years. Now, a single pulp mill is the sole beneficiary of the power the dams produce, and nearly all of the Elwha River's 175,000-acre watershed is protected wilderness in Olympic National Park.

In 1992, the dams' current owners, the Fort James Co., along with federal agencies, Indian tribes and environmental groups, came together to support legislation directing the Department of the Interior and the National Park Service to restore salmon to the Elwha River, even if it would mean removing both dams (HCN, 5/31/93). Congress passed the Elwha River Ecosystem and Fisheries Restoration Act with bipartisan support, and dam removal garnered widespread public favor and the approval of the Clinton administration.

Conservatives led by Gorton later balked at the cost: The federal government would have to pay $125 million to buy the dams, remove them and make water quality improvements here in the nearby city of Port Angeles, Wash.

When last year's federal budget negotiations allocated $700 million to the Land and Water Conservation Fund, more than twice the normal amount, the senator relaxed his position - but only on one dam, the lower Elwha, which can be removed at a cost of only $86 million. This, Gorton said at the meeting, "is the more cautious approach."

Still, biologists and supporters of salmon restoration consider Gorton's approach - take out one dam now and look at the second dam 12 years later - anything but cautious. Sediment washing out of the draining reservoirs would give salmon and municipal water systems a double hit, Jeff Bohman, a representative of the group, Friends of the Elwha, said at the meeting. It would be far cheaper, he added, to tear out both dams at once.

Bohman and other critics, like Shawn Cantrell, also point out that removing just the lower dam would offer returning salmon little in the way of spawning habitat, because the section of river between the two dams has been scoured of gravel, logs and woody debris. Said Bohman of Gorton's proposal, "It doesn't make environmental, economic or water-quality sense."

The writer lives in Sequim, Washington.

You can call ...

* Sen. Slade Gorton at 202/224-3441;

* Shawn Cantrell of Friends of the Earth at 206/633-1661.