Although dams are seemingly permanent (albeit recent) features of the Northwest riverine environment, like all artificial structures, they have a finite engineering and economic life expectancy.... Where dams are a significant contributor to the decline of salmon runs, dam removal is an obvious rehabilitative alternative.
-- Upstream: Salmon and Society in the Pacific Northwest (National Academy Press, 1996), a report by the National Research Council, National Academy of Sciences (pg. 248).
There are over 2900 fish-killing dams in the Interior Columbia Basin alone, and nobody knows how many thousands of others scattered throughout the west coast. In the dam building frenzy of the 20's through 60's dams were grossly overbuilt. Many of these dams are now obsolete, too expensive or safety hazards. Lots of them cost far more in environmental damage (especially to our salmon fishery) than any social benefits they provide. Some are now scheduled for removal to help restore the salmon populations they have decimated. Yet each and every one of them has its defenders, including some surprisingly wrongheaded and downright reactionary champions in Congress.
Last month, for instance, Senator Slade Gorton topped the list by filing a bill (S. 1904) which, in return for unblocking financial support of the removal of only one of two unwanted, illegally built, unneeded and highly destructive dams on the Elwha River in the Olympic National Park (already approved by Congress for removal) would have locked in stone all the current federal dam operations in the Columbia. This means that there could never be any changes in future operations, fish passage, drawdown or anything in the Columbia ever again -- absolutely nothing for salmon restoration -- without a full vote of Congress.
Gortons bill is so bad the Seattle Times Editorial of April 7th called it Gortons Ransom Note and stated, Sen. Gortons brassy hostage ploy on the Elwha is no way to argue that four Snake River dams at the heart of salmon protection debates ought to be left alone... Holding the former hostage for the appearance of protecting the latter is pointless.
Gortons bill, among other things, would exempt the Columbia and Snake River dams forevermore from the Endangered Species Act; forbid the Corps of Engineers even from any further studies of natural river drawdowns or other salmon protection measures advocated by a number of independent science panels -- including one that Gorton himself had formed by previous legislation; prevent any salmon recovery measures beyond that called for in the 1995 NMFS Biological Opinion (even though that BiOp was never intended to be a long term plan); prohibit any reservoir drawdown below minimum operating pool; prohibit any further efforts toward dam removal or modification of any dam in any form; eliminate all further right of judicial review of Columbia and Snake River management, essentially slamming shut the courtroom doors to the citizenry. Under his bill, Congress would become the sole authority over the river system forever. Nothing could ever be done again for salmon restoration at any of the 60 federal licensed dams anywhere in the Columbia -- not even study the problem -- without full Congressional authorization.
Essentially the bill is a declaration that the economic needs of a handful of taxpayer subsidized barge companies in Lewiston, Idaho, are more important than those of fishermen, fishing businesses, coastal communities, States rights or the rights of citizens for access to justice. If this bill were passed, the upper river industries responsible for the idea would at one stroke have made any further Columbia River salmon restoration impossible, locked in huge federal subsidies for a handful of large barge transportation companies virtually forever, and eliminated all regional control over every federally licensed dam (at least 60 large dams and an unknown number of smaller ones) throughout the entire Columbia Basin.
Fishermen have never been friends of dams. Organized fishermen have halted construction of a number of dams over the years that would have destroyed whole fisheries. In fact, the original design of Bonneville Dam had no fish passage at all -- it was not until the Columbia River gillnetters organized and loudly demanded fish ladders and mitigation hatcheries in the 1930's that they were grudgingly installed. For decades fishermen led the fight for similar mitigation measures all through the Columbia and in the Central Valley of California. None of the Mitchell Act mitigation hatcheries would have been built without demands by fishermen. Time and time we foretold the damage that dams would do to our salmon fishery. Each time we were told there would be no problem, lied to, outmanuevered -- and many dams were built anyway. Though it is no great comfort now that the damage has mostly been done, seventy years of history have proven us right -- dams do kill fish.
Now at last -- though it took 160 salmon stock extinctions, widespread fisheries closures and the Endangered Species Act -- many state and federal agencies are rethinking the whole issue of dams and fish. Some of the worst of these dams are likely to come out in the near future, or be considerably modified to meet fish passage requirements. Here are some of the results of this sea change:
The Two Elwha Dams in Washington -- Congress already approved in 1992 (Public Law 102-495) the purchase and removal of the two Elwha Dams. These dams block important spawning and rearing habitat for ten distinct runs of salmon and steelhead, the surrounding habitat is pristine (Olympic National Park), and several studies indicate that restoring these runs would recapture millions of dollars per year in improved commercial, recreational and Tribal fisheries. In 1993 the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) itself concluded that the estimated adult salmon population after removal of these dams would average over 200,000 more fish than currently produced. Even the owners of the dams now favor their purchase and removal -- it would be cheaper for them to obtain power on the open market than maintain these aging dams. There is no better opportunity for salmon restoration in the Northwest. The only thing holding up this removal is Slade Gorton. Through various parliamentary maneuvers he has systematically prevented Congress from appropriating the money to complete the job since removal was first authorized.
Elk Creek Dam in Oregon -- Located on a Rogue River tributary just north of Medford, this is a dam that even the Army Corps of Engineers no longer wants or thinks is needed. Authorized in 1962, it was a classic 'pork barrel' project left over from a prior Congress, and it has never been completed. However, enough has been finished to block considerable spawning and rearing habitat for ESA listed coho salmon and steelhead and to disrupt water quality. For years the Corps of Engineers has had to capture salmon below the dam and truck them upstream so they could reach spawning habitat. The Corps of Engineers wanted to blast a notch in the dam to allow salmon to swim freely through it this year, but were blocked by a last minute appropriations rider written by Congressman Bob Smith of Eastern Oregon. No federal or state agency wants the dam, the dam has no purpose or reason for being -- now only Bob Smith is keeping it alive.
Savage Rapids Dam in Oregon -- This is a rapidly deteriorating 77-year old state-licensed dam owned by the Grants Pass Irrigation District which, according to US Fish and Wildlife Service studies, has destroyed at least $5 million/year in fisheries benefits within the Rogue River Basin. The dams only function is to supply water to suburban homes and some golf courses that could just as easily (and more cheaply) be supplied by pumps. Fish screens at the dam are antiquated and ineffective. One time costs of removing the dam and replacing it with modern pumps would actually cost less ($11 million) than the $17 million minimum required to upgrade and fix the dam to allow fish passage. Removal would restore a $5 million/year fishery which would provide economic benefits forever. In other words, the net benefits to the economy of removing the dam are far greater than the value of the dam itself!
Savage Rapids Dam threatens extinction for ESA listed coho in the river. The Water Resources Commission has voted not to extend the Districts water permits, but the Irrigation District has so far defied the State. The National Marine Fisheries Service has threatened suit against the District if it continues to operate as usual.
Butte Creek, California -- There are a number of small dams within Californias Central Valley which provide very little benefit and once removed would provide considerable value in terms of restored spawning and rearing habitat for salmonids. Examples include the Centerville Head Dam, the Butte Head Dam and the Forks of the Butte Creek Dam on upper Butte Creek. Removal of these dams would restore access to important spring-run chinook spawning and rearing habitat. The spring-run chinook are now proposed for 'endangered' status under the ESA and if listed would seriously disrupt central California fishing seasons. Roughly doubling their available spawning habitat by the simple purchase and removal of these obsolete dams would go a long way toward the recovery of this species. After considerable study of this option, the decommissioning of these dams appears quite feasible -- and the dams owners are willing to consider any reasonable offer.
The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) is the federal agency that licenses hydropower dams. FERC has shown more and more willingness to require major fish passage modifications for any dams that are relicensed. In fact, FERC just ordered an existing dam in Maine removed as an obstruction to fish passage, and on April 15th denied a license for a proposed dam on the Penobscot River in Maine (the Basin Mills Project) because it would have significant adverse effects on Atlantic salmon and their restoration efforts.
FERC licenses typically last up to 50 years. Most major dams throughout the West are facing FERC relicensing within the next 10 years, and FERC is more inclined these days than ever to impose additional conditions on such licenses to mitigate environmental damages. Existing FERC licenses are also being challenged in court as more and more fish in dammed watersheds slip toward extinction and come under the Endangered Species Act. It is the ESA, in fact, that is driving federal water project reforms in the Central Valley, the Klamath Basin and the Columbia/Snake Rivers. PCFFA itself now has a petition before FERC (based on recent ESA listings in the Columbia) which may reopen FERC licensing requirements for flows and fish passage at the Hells Canyon Dam in Idaho. We are also considering challenging the biological adequacy of FERC minimum flow requirements elsewhere.
Yet even without those challenges, the ESA requires dam operators to go beyond their FERC minimum requirements whenever additional flows are required to prevent extinction of downriver fish. Lately we have seen that awareness slowly sinking into agency decision-making. In the recent Environmental Assessment for the Klamath Project, for instance, the Bureau of Reclamation flatly states that FERC minimum flows from Iron Gate Dam will not be sufficient to prevent extinctions. The Bureau is proposing to substantially exceed those FERC minimums in 1998 as a matter of dam management policy.
All this talk of retiring dams makes some powerful vested interests in the upper Columbia very nervous. It is no longer thinking the unthinkable to consider early retirement for the four lower Snake River dams, and this column has considered the arguments for the removal of these lower Snake River dams before (see Battle Over the Columbia, FN Oct., 1997). When you total up all the costs of the four lower Snake River dams -- including long-term dam maintenance costs and the likely costs imposed on the economy by the collapse of the salmon fishery (some 25,000 jobs and $500 million/year) and the hundreds of millions of dollars that must be spent each year in trying to mitigate the damages done by the dams in the first place -- well, they are no bargain, that is for sure! These four dams provide no flood control, very little irrigation (about 1/10th of 1% of all Columbia irrigated lands), only 4.1% of the hydropower and few benefits other than transportation by barge to Lewiston. In fact, these four fish- killing dams amount to a huge taxpayer subsidy which benefits only a handful of extremely wealthy barge companies at the expense of everyone else.
What Senator Gorton and the upper river corporate big wigs who are jerking his string on this one are afraid of is just what is coming to pass -- once all the facts are known, early retirement of those four lower Snake River dams may in fact be by far the most sensible economic and biological choice. On the Columbia they simply built four dams too many. This is what many scientists are now saying, this is what the economists are leaning towards and this is just what Senator Gorton and his taxpayer subsidized cronies up there do NOT want you ever to hear!
For related and more recent articles see:
"Ending the Era of Big Dams: Why Some Dams Must Go" (Fishermen's News -- August, 1999).
"The Battle Over the Columbia" (Fishermen's News -- October, 1997).
PCFFA Web page on Dams and Decommissioning.
PCFFA is the west coast's largest organization of commercial fishermen. PCFFA's Southwest Regional Office can be reached at: PO Box 29370, San Francisco, CA 94129-0370 and by phone (415)561-5080. PCFFA's Northwest Regional Office can be reached at: PO Box 11170, Eugene, OR 97440-3370 and by phone (541)689-2000. PCFFA's Internet Home Page is at <http://www.pcffa.org> or PCFFA can be reached by email at <email@example.com>.
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