Fish, rivers, environmentalists win in dam removal

William Booth; The Washington Post
The News Tribune


Oregon - With many of the nation's dams no longer making economic or environmental sense, old dams are being dismantled in a slow-moving but remarkable reversal of fortune for rivers and fish.

The latest announcement came from the Pacific Northwest when Portland General Electric signed a $16 million deal last week to remove Marmot Dam on the Sandy River and another smaller structure on the Little Sandy in Oregon about 50 miles east of Portland.

The deconstructions in Oregon are unusual because they are fully functioning hydroelectric dams still producing power - a move that once would have been almost unimaginable.

"This is a major development in the environmental history of the West," said Eric Eckl, a spokesman for American Rivers, an advocacy group. "It is one of first removals of hydroelectric dams, and they are not only taking down the dams, but restoring habitat for threatened salmon and steelhead."

Conservationists hope it's the beginning of a long-term trend. Hundreds of dams are slated for possible demolition; more than 60 are to be removed this year alone, the highest number since American Rivers began keeping count five years ago.

"I recognize there are risks involved. We've never been down this road before," Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber (D) told reporters at the signing ceremony for the deal to dismantle Marmot Dam. Kitzhaber was referring to a central problem with removing old dams: the huge buildup of silt behind them that must be slowly siphoned off so as not to damage downstream habitat.

But he added: "We do know this one small piece of Oregon will be wilder. ... We're restoring a part of why we love this state."

Since the deconstruction of the Edwards Dam on the Kennebec River in Maine three years ago, more than 250 impoundments have been dismantled, many in eastern and midwestern states such as Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. Most are small, and almost all have done their jobs for irrigation, flood control or water supply - and not hydroelectric power.

But environmentalists, working closely with utility companies and other agencies (when they aren't suing them), are pressing ahead to take on ever bigger dams.

In the next few years, three more large dams may come down in the Pacific Northwest: the Elwha Dam on the Olympic Peninsula, the Savage Rapids Dam on the Rogue River in Oregon and the Condit Dam on the White Salmon River in Washington.

The issue has been most heated in the Pacific Northwest because of the dwindling runs of salmon, the totemic species there, the symbol of how well wildness can live alongside Microsoft and Boeing, wheat farmers and wine growers.

Public and private institutions are struggling to restore the runs of salmon, steelhead trout, alewife and other migratory fish, which spend part of their lives in the ocean but return to their natal streams and rivers to spawn. The dams block fish from swimming upstream. To help the fish pass over the dams, elaborate measures have been employed. Many dams have "fish ladders," and some salmon are even loaded into barges and trucks and transported upstream. At the Marmot Dam, workers pluck salmon from a pool, select the wild substocks and allow them to pass upriver.

Much of the controversy over dam removal traditionally pitted environmentalists against big utilities, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers or the Bureau of Reclamation. But a consensus seems to be growing that many water impoundments have served their purpose and should be decommissioned.

"There is this shift in thinking, that there are these outmoded dams that have run their cause, and the environmental benefits of removing them vastly outweigh the cost of preserving them, and those are the dams that people are taking the hardest look at," said Alan Moore, a spokesman for Trout Unlimited's western conservation programs.

Environmentalists argue that removing dams is not only good for fish but bolsters a new service economy based upon free-moving rivers: the fishing and rafting guides, and the tourists and new residents who seek out less spoiled areas.

The new look at old hydroelectric dams is occurring because the facilities must renew their licenses every 50 years with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, and many are coming up for review. To renew their licenses, older dams often must be renovated to provide state-of-the-art access for migrating fish, which can be expensive.

Those are the calculations that Peggy Fowler, president of Portland General Electric, said she made when the utility decided to remove its two dams in the Sandy River system.

Marmot, the larger, was built in 1912 and needed extensive maintenance and alterations to improve fish habitat. Together, the two dams produce about 10 megawatts of electricity, less than 1 percent of the 2,000 megawatts of electricity that PGE generates.

Building the dams "was the wonderful thing to do in the beginning," Fowler said. But there is "the right thing to do now, which is take them down."

The Marmot Dam will go in 2007, and the Little Sandy Dam will go in 2008. The dams lie just outside the western edge of the Mount Hood National Forest. The utility also will transfer 1,500 acres of land near the dams to a nonprofit organization toward the creation of a 5,000-acre nature reserve.

But as Julie Keil, director of hydroelectric licensing at PGE, says, "It's harder to take out a dam than you might think."

Related story: Warming may hurt salmon, study says


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