The dawning era of dam breaching

This story makes it clear to me that Oregon is WAY ahead of Washington on dam removal.  Whether it’s breaching of small dams like Savage Rapids or open discussion of lower Snake River Dam removal, Oregon is setting an inspirational pace in the 21st century.

All this is coming from a region/State where the spotted owl listing had economic effects on many communities involved in the timber industry.  It makes positive change for orcas and salmon in Washington rivers seem possible, but probably only after there are much more concerted efforts by many stake-holders, and often drawn-out legal battles.  Or maybe the lesson here (and implicitly in King of Fish) is that humans don’t conserve salmon until economic and ecological values are concisely quantified and definitively on the side of dam-removal?

In the Northwest, there are some 20th-century precedents for dam removal, but they are rare and not very inspirational because they were drowned out by the waves of dam construction sweeping through the Western landscape.  Here are two examples from a history of dam impacts by the Northwest Power and Conservation Council:

Although dams were known to impact salmon, few dams ever were removed. One of the first, if not the first, to be removed over salmon impacts was one across the Wallowa River in northeastern Oregon. The dam was constructed in 1904 at the Minam Fish Hatchery, and on June 4, 1914, in a late-season snow storm, the dam was dynamited.

The dam had been in place since 1905, when it was constructed with the hatchery to trap salmon returning to spawn. Eggs from Wallowa River salmon were incubated and the smolts released from the Bonneville Fish Hatchery at Eagle Creek to feed the commercial fishing industry, but the dam had decimated the Wallowa River fishery.

Two weeks after the dam was blown out, the Wallowa County Chieftain newspaper of Enterprise, Oregon, reported: “It is hoped that the removal of the dam, by opening the river to migratory fish, will make angling better than ever in streams and lakes of this county.”

But the hope never was realized. By then, sockeye in Wallowa Lake had lost their migratory instinct and become adapted to the lake environment. Three years later, when a screen at the outlet of Wallowa Lake was removed to allow an estimated 5 million fish to migrate to the ocean, most of the fish later were discovered in irrigation ditches short distances downstream. Ironically, another dam was built at the outlet of Wallowa Lake just four years later, in 1918, and it, too, stopped fish passage. The elevation of the privately owned dam was raised in 1929. The 35-foot-tall concrete dam, which lacks fish passage, is owned today by the Associated Ditch Companies, Inc., a non-profit corporation. In 2000 the Oregon Water Resources Department declared the aging structure a “high hazard dam,” which meant it could be condemned if it is not rehabilitated. Associated Ditch Companies sought funding for the needed repairs, which could include fish passage facilities to allow coho and sockeye salmon to migrate freely into and out of the lake, something the fish were not able to do for most of the 20th century. State and federal money was appropriated in 2006 for rehabilitating the dam.

In 1927, Inland Power and Light Company completed Lewiston Dam on the Clearwater River four miles upstream from its confluence with the Snake. The dam included a fish ladder, but it was inadequate. Lewiston Dam virtually eliminated Chinook salmon runs into the Clearwater Basin. Steelhead were able to negotiate the ladder, but their numbers declined dramatically, too. In 1937, Washington Water Power Company of Spokane acquired the dam, and in 1939 built two additional fish ladders. Improvements were made to all three ladders in the mid-1960s. Lewiston Dam was removed in 1973 to make way for the reservoir behind Lower Granite Dam about 40 miles downstream on the Snake, and also to facilitate barge traffic to Lewiston. In May 1999, a federal judge approved a settlement that required Avista Corp., formerly Washington Water Power, to pay $39 million to the Nez Perce Tribe for fish losses caused by Lewiston Dam and another dam that also was owned by Avista’s predecessor. That one, the Grangeville Dam, was built by Grangeville Power and Light Company in 1903 and also was acquired by Washington Water Power in 1937. Grangeville Dam operated until 1963, when it was demolished.

Of course, other States deserve credit for instigating the new era of dam breaching.  The removal of Edward’s Dam in Maine set a precedent for FERC dismantling a dam on purely ecological grounds.  A 1999 report on Dam Removal Success stories by American Rivers shows that Washington was not on the map in the 20th century:

…until 1999, states with the most recorded removals were Wisconsin (73 dams), California (47 dams), Ohio (39 dams), Pennsylvania (38dams), and Tennessee (25 dams).

Will we be on the list in the 21st century, or even at the top of it?

Oregon dam’s demise lets the Rogue River run

Savage Rapids Dam destroyed

On Friday, a platoon of bulldozers and earthmovers tore away at the last of the temporary earthen berms holding water behind the dam. The Rogue River rushed free, flowing through its historic channel for the first time since 1921.

Across the U.S., the era of dam-building that characterized the early 20th century has given way to a new era of dam breaching.

Here in the Pacific Northwest, where some of the biggest battles over fish and concrete have raged, the Marmot Dam on the Sandy River near Portland was demolished in 2007. An agreement was reached last month to remove four dams on the Klamath River in California and Oregon in what is described as the world’s biggest river restoration project. Two dams on Washington’s Elwha River are slated for removal in 2012.

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