Beyond the Valley of the Dammed

An alliance of fish lovers, tree huggers, conservationists and bureaucrats say it's time to free the rivers and take down the dams

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By God but we built some dams! We backed up the Kennebec in Maine and the Neuse in North Carolina and a hundred creeks and streams that once ran free. We stopped the Colorado with the Hoover, high as 35 houses, and because it pleased us we kept damming and diverting the river until it no longer reached the sea. We dammed our way out of the Great Depression with the Columbia’s Grand Coulee, a dam so immense you had to borrow another fellow’s mind because yours alone wasn’t big enough to wrap around it. Then we cleaved the Missouri with a bigger one still, the Fort Peck Dam, a jaw dropper so outsized they put it on the cover of the first issue of Life. We turned the Tennessee, the Columbia, and the Snake from continental arteries into still bathtubs. We dammed the Clearwater, the Boise, the Santiam, the Deschutes, the Skagit, the Willamette, and the McKenzie. We dammed Crystal River and Muddy Creek, the Little River and the Rio Grande. We dammed the Minnewawa and the Minnesota, and we dammed the Kalamazoo. We dammed the Swift and we dammed the Dead.

One day we looked up and saw 75,000 dams impounding more than half a million miles of river. We looked down and saw rivers scrubbed free of salmon and sturgeon and shad. Cold rivers ran warm, warm rivers ran cold, and fertile muddy banks turned barren.

And that’s when we stopped talking about dams as instruments of holy progress and started talking about blowing them out of the water.

Surrounded by a small crowd, Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt stood atop McPherrin Dam, on Butte Creek, not far from Chico, California, in the hundred-degree heat of the Sacramento Valley. The constituencies represented—farmers, wildlife conservationists, state fish and game officials, irrigation managers—had been wrangling over every drop of water in this naturally arid basin for most of a century. On this day, however, amity reigned.

With CNN cameras rolling, Babbitt hoisted a sledgehammer above his head and—“with evident glee,” as one reporter later noted—brought this tool of destruction down upon the dam. Golf claps all around.

The secretary’s hammer strike in July 1998 marked the beginning of the end for that ugly concrete plug and three other Butte Creek irrigation dams. All were coming out to encourage the return of spring-run chinook salmon, blocked from their natural spawning grounds for more than 75 years. Babbitt then flew to Medford, Oregon, and took a swing at 30-year-old Jackson Street Dam on Bear Creek. Last year alone, Babbitt cracked the concrete at four dams on Wisconsin’s Menominee River and two dams on Elwha River in Washington state; at Quaker Neck Dam on North Carolina’s Neuse River; and at 160-year-old Edwards Dam on the Kennebec in Maine.

By any reckoning, this was a weird inversion of the natural order. Interior secretaries are supposed to christen dams, not smash them. Sixty years ago, President Franklin D. Roosevelt and his interior secretary, Harold Ickes, toured the West to dedicate four of the largest dams in the history of civilization. Since 1994, Babbitt, who knows his history, has been following in their footsteps, but this secretary is preaching the gospel of dam-going-away. “America overshot the mark in our dam-building frenzy,” he told the Ecological Society of America. “The public is now learning that we have paid a steadily accumulating price for these projects….We did not build them for religious purposes and they do not consecrate our values. Dams do, in fact, outlive their function. When they do, some should go.”

Many dams continue, of course, to be invaluable pollution-free power plants. Hydroelectric dams provide 10 percent of the nation’s electricity (and half of our renewable energy). In the Northwest, dams account for 75 percent of the region’s power and bestow the lowest electrical rates in the nation. In the past the public was encouraged to believe that hydropower was almost free; but as Babbitt has been pointing out, the real costs can be enormous.

What we know now that we didn’t know in 1938 is that a river isn’t a water pipe. Dam a river and it will drop most of the sediment it carries into a still reservoir, trapping ecologically valuable debris such as branches, wood particles, and gravel. The sediment may be mixed with more and more pollutants—toxic chemicals leaching from abandoned mines, for example, or naturally occurring but dangerous heavy metals. Once the water passes through the dam it continues to scour, but it can’t replace what it removes with material from upstream. A dammed river is sometimes called a “hungry” river, one that eats its bed and banks. Riverbeds and banks may turn into cobblestone streets, large stones cemented in by the ultrafine silt that passes through the dams. Biologists call this “armoring.”

Naturally cold rivers may run warm after the sun heats water trapped in the reservoir; naturally warm rivers may run cold if their downstream flow is drawn from the bottom of deep reservoirs. Fish adapted to cold water won’t survive in warm water, and vice versa.

As the toll on wild rivers became more glaringly evident in recent decades, opposition to dams started to go mainstream. By the 1990s, conservation groups, fishing organizations, and other river lovers began to call for actions that had once been supported only by environmental extremists and radical groups like Earth First!. Driven by changing economics, environmental law, and most of all the specter of vanishing fish, government policy makers began echoing the conservationists. And then Bruce Babbitt, perhaps sensing the inevitable tide of history, began to support decommissioning as well.

So far, only small dams have been removed. Babbitt may chip away at all the little dams he wants, but when it comes to ripping major federal hydropower projects out of Western rivers, that’s when the politics get national and nasty. Twenty-two years ago, when President Jimmy Carter suggested pulling the plug on several grand dam projects, Western senators and representatives politically crucified him. Although dam opponents have much stronger scientific and economic arguments on their side in 1999, the coming dam battles are apt to be just as nasty.

Consider the Snake River, where a major confrontation looms over four federal hydropower dams near the Washington-Idaho state line. When I asked Babbitt about the Snake last fall, he almost seemed to be itching for his hammer. “The escalating debate over dams is going to focus in the coming months on the Snake River,” he declared. “We’re now face to face with this question: Do the people of this country place more value on Snake River salmon or on those four dams? The scientific studies are making it clear that you can’t have both.”

Brave talk—but only a couple of weeks later, after a bruising budget skirmish with congressional dam proponents who accused him of planning to tear down dams across the Northwest, Babbitt sounded like a man who had just learned a sobering lesson in the treacherous politics of dams. The chastened interior secretary assured the public that “I have never advocated, and do not advocate, the removal of dams on the main stem of the Columbia-Snake river system.”

Showdown on the Snake 

Lewiston, Idaho, sits at the confluence of the Snake and Clearwater Rivers. It’s a quiet place of 33,000 solid citizens, laid out like a lot of towns these days: One main road leads into the dying downtown core, the other to a thriving strip of Wal-Marts, gas stations, and fast-food greaseries. When Lewis (hence the name) and Clark floated through here in 1805, they complained about the river rapids—“Several of them verry bad,” the spelling-challenged Clark scrawled in his journal. Further downriver, where the Snake meets the Columbia, the explorers were amazed to see the local Indians catching and drying incredible numbers of coho salmon headed upriver to spawn.

The river still flows, though it’s been dammed into a lake for nearly 150 miles. Between 1962 and 1975, four federal hydroelectric projects were built on the river by the Army Corps of Engineers: Ice Harbor Dam, Lower Monumental Dam, Little Goose Dam, and Lower Granite Dam. The dams added to the regional power supply, but more crucially, they turned the Snake from a whitewater roller-coaster into a navigable waterway. The surrounding wheat farmers could now ship their grain on barges to Portland, Oregon, at half the cost of overland transport, and other industries also grew to depend on this cheap highway to the sea.

Like all dams, however, they were hell on the river and its fish—the chinook, coho, sockeye, and steelhead. True, some salmon species still run up the river to spawn, but by the early 1990s the fish count had dwindled from 5 million to less than 20,000. The Snake River coho have completely disappeared, and the sockeye are nearing extinction.

In and around Lewiston, the two conflicting interests—livelihoods that depend on the dams on the one side, the fate of the fish on the other—mean that just about everyone is either a friend of the dams or a breacher. The Snake is the dam-breaching movement’s first major test case, but it is also the place where dam defenders plan to make their stand. Most important, depending in part on the results of a study due later this year, the lower Snake could become the place where the government orders the first decommissioning of several big dams.

In the forefront of those who hope this happens is Charlie Ray, an oxymoron of a good ol’ boy environmentalist whose booming Tennessee-bred baritone and sandy hair lend him the aspect of Nashville Network host. Ray makes his living as head of salmon and steelhead programs for Idaho Rivers United, a conservationist group that has been raising a fuss about free-flowing rivers since 1991. At heart he’s not a tree hugger, but a steelhead junkie: “You hook a steelhead, man, you got 10,000 years of survival instinct on the end of that line.”

Despite Ray’s bluff good cheer, it’s not easy being a breacher in Lewiston. Wheat farming still drives a big part of the local economy, and the pro-dam forces predict that breaching would lead to financial ruin. Lining up behind the dam defenders are Lewiston’s twin pillars of industry: the Potlatch Corporation and the Port of Lewiston. Potlatch, one of the country’s largest paper producers, operates its flagship pulp and paper mill in Lewiston, employing 2,300 people. Potlatch executives will tell you the company wants the dams mainly to protect the town’s economy, but local environmentalists say the mill would find it more difficult to discharge warm effluent into a free-flowing, shallow river.

Potlatch provides Charlie Ray with a worthy foil in company spokesman Frank Carroll, who was hired after spending 17 years working the media for the U.S. Forest Service. Frankie and Charlie have been known to scrap. At an anti-breaching rally in Lewiston last September, Carroll stood off-camera watching Ray being interviewed by a local TV reporter. Fed up with hearing Ray’s spin, Carroll started shouting “Bullshit, Charlie, that’s bullshit!” while the video rolled. Ray’s nothing more than a “paid operative,” Carroll says. Ray’s reaction: “Yeah, like Frankie’s not.”

“A lot of people are trying to trivialize the social and economic issues,” Carroll says, “trying to tell us the lives people have here don’t count, that we’ll open up a big bait shop and put everyone to work hooking worms. We resent that. Right now, there’s a blanket of prosperity that lies across this whole region, and that prosperity is due to the river in its current state—to its transportation.”

Ever since the dams started going up along the Snake River, biologists and engineers have been trying to revive the rapidly declining salmon runs. Their schemes include fish ladders, hatcheries, and a bizarre program in which young smolts are captured and shipped downriver to the sea in barges. By the late 1980s, it was clear that nothing was working; the fish runs continued to plummet. In 1990, the Shoshone-Bannock Indians, who traditionally fished the Snake’s sockeye run, successfully petitioned the National Marine Fisheries Service to list the fish as endangered. Every salmon species in the Snake River is now officially threatened or endangered, which means the agencies that control the river must deal with all kinds of costly regulations.

In 1995, under pressure from the federal courts, the National Marine Fisheries Service and the Army Corps of Engineers (which continues to operate the dams) agreed to launch a four-year study of the four lower Snake River dams. In tandem with the Fisheries Service, the Corps made a bombshell announcement. The study would consider three options: maintain the status quo, turbocharge the fish-barging operation, or initiate a “permanent natural river drawdown”—breaching. The study’s final report is due in December, but whatever its conclusions, that initial statement marked a dramatic shift. Suddenly, an action that had always seemed unthinkable was an officially sanctioned possibility.

Two separate scientific studies concluded that breaching presented the best hope for saving the river. In 1997 the Idaho Statesman, the state’s largest newspaper, published a three-part series arguing that breaching the four dams would net local taxpayers and the region’s economy $183 million a year. The dams, the paper concluded, “are holding Idaho’s economy hostage.”

“That series was seismic,” says Reed Burkholder, a Boise-based breaching advocate. Charlie Ray agrees. “We’ve won the scientific argument,” he says. “And we’ve won the economic argument. We’re spending more to drive the fish to extinction than it would cost to revive them.”

In fact, the economic argument is far from won. The Statesman’s numbers are not unimpeachable. The key to their prediction, a projected $248 million annual boost in recreation and fishing, assumes that the salmon runs will return to pre-1960s levels. Fisheries experts say that could take up to 24 years, if it happens at all. The $34 million lost at the Port of Lewiston each year, however, would be certain and immediate.

The Northwest can do without the power of the four lower Snake River dams: They account for only about 4 percent of the region’s electricity supply. The dams aren’t built for flood control, and contrary to a widely held belief, they provide only a small amount of irrigation water to the region’s farmers. What the issue comes down to, then, is the Port of Lewiston. You take the dams out, says port manager Dave Doeringsfeld, “and transportation costs go up 200 to 300 percent.”

To breach or to blow? 

The pro-dam lobbyists know they possess a powerful, not-so-secret weapon: Senator Slade Gorton, the Washington Republican who holds the commanding post of chairman of the Subcommittee on Interior Appropriations. Gorton has built his political base by advertising himself as the foe of liberal Seattle environmentalists, and with his hands on Interior’s purse strings, he can back up the role with real clout. As determined as Bruce Babbitt is to bring down a big dam, Slade Gorton may be more determined to stop him.

During last October’s federal budget negotiations, Gorton offered to allocate $22 million for removing two modest dams in the Elwha River on the Olympic Peninsula, a salmon-restoration project dear to the hearts of dam-breaching advocates. But Gorton agreed to fund the Elwha breaching if—and only if—the budget included language forbidding federal officials from unilaterally ordering the dismantling of any dam, including those in the Columbia River Basin. Babbitt and others balked at Gorton’s proposal. As a result, the 1999 budget includes zero dollars for removal of the Elwha dams.

Gorton’s Elwha maneuver may have been hardball politics for its own sake, but it was also a clear warning: If the Army Corps and the National Marine Fisheries Service recommend breaching on the Snake in their study later this year, there will be hell to pay.

Meanwhile, here’s a hypothetical question: If you’re going to breach, how do you actually do it? How do you take those behemoths out? It depends on the dam, of course, but the answer on the Snake is shockingly simple.

“You leave the dam there,” Charlie Ray says. We’re standing downstream from Lower Granite Dam, 35 million pounds of steel encased in concrete. Lower Granite isn’t a classic ghastly curtain like Hoover Dam; it resembles nothing so much as an enormous half-sunk harmonica. Ray points to a berm of granite boulders butting up against the concrete structure’s northern end. “Take out the earthen portion and let the river flow around the dam. This is not high-tech stuff. This is front-end loaders and dump trucks.”

It turns out that Charlie is only a few adjectives short of the truth. All you do need are loaders and dump trucks—really, really big ones, says Steve Tatro of the Army Corps of Engineers. Tatro has the touchy job of devising the best way to breach his agency’s own dams. First, he says, you’d draw down the reservoir, using the spillways and the lower turbine passages as drains. Then you’d bypass the concrete and steel entirely and excavate the dam’s earthen portion. Depending on the dam, that could mean excavating as much as 8 million cubic yards of material.

Tatro’s just-the-facts manner can’t disguise the reality that there is something deeply cathartic about the act he’s describing. Most environmental restoration happens at the speed of nature. Which is to say, damnably slow. Breaching a dam—or better yet, blowing a dam—offers a rare moment of immediate gratification.

The Glen Canyon story 

From the Mesopotamian canals to Hoover Dam, it took the human mind about 10,000 years to figure out how to stop a river. It has taken only 60 years to accomplish the all-too-obvious environmental destruction.

Until the 1930s, most dam projects were matters of trial and (often) error, but beginning with Hoover Dam in 1931, dam builders began erecting titanic riverstoppers that approached an absolute degree of reliability and safety. In Cadillac Desert, a 1986 book on Western water issues, author Marc Reisner notes that from 1928 to 1956, “the most fateful transformation that has ever been visited on any landscape, anywhere, was wrought.” Thanks to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, the Tennessee Valley Authority, and the Army Corps, dams lit a million houses, turned deserts into wheat fields, and later powered the factories that built the planes and ships that beat Hitler and the Japanese. Dams became monuments to democracy and enlightenment during times of bad luck and hunger and war.

Thirty years later, author Edward Abbey became the first dissenting voice to be widely heard. In Desert Solitaire and The Monkey Wrench Gang, Abbey envisioned a counterforce of wilderness freaks wiring bombs to the Colorado River’s Glen Canyon Dam, which he saw as the ultimate symbol of humanity’s destruction of the American West. Kaboom! Wildness returns to the Colorado.

Among environmentalists, the Glen Canyon Dam has become an almost mythic symbol of riparian destruction. All the symptoms of dam kill are there. The natural heavy metals that the Colorado River used to disperse into the Gulf of California now collect behind the dam in Lake Powell. And the lake is filling up: Sediment has reduced the volume of the lake from its original 27 million acre-feet to 23 million. One million acre-feet of water are lost to evaporation every year—enough, environmentalists note, to revive the dying upper reaches of the Gulf of California. The natural river ran warm and muddy, and flushed its channel with floods; the dammed version runs cool, clear, and even. Trout thrive in the Colorado. This is like giraffes thriving on tundra.

Another reason for the dam’s symbolic power can be traced to its history. Four decades ago, David Brower, then executive director of the Sierra Club, agreed to a compromise that haunts him to this day: Conservationists would not oppose Glen Canyon and 11 other projects if plans for the proposed Echo Park and Split Mountain dams, in Utah and Colorado, were abandoned. In 1963, the place Wallace Stegner once called “the most serenely beautiful of all the canyons of the Colorado” began disappearing beneath Lake Powell. Brower led the successful fight to block other dams in the Grand Canyon area, but he remained bitter about the compromise. “Glen Canyon died in 1963,” he later wrote, “and I was partly responsible for its needless death.”

In 1981 Earth First! inaugurated its prankster career by unfurling an enormous black plastic “crack” down the face of Glen Canyon Dam. In 1996 the Sierra Club rekindled the issue by calling for the draining of Lake Powell. With the support of Earth Island Institute (which Brower now chairs) and other environmental groups, the proposal got a hearing before a subcommittee of the House Committee on Resources in September 1997. Congress has taken no further action, but a growing number of responsible voices now echo the monkey-wrenchers’ arguments. Even longtime Bureau of Reclamation supporter Barry Goldwater admitted, before his death last year, that he considered Glen Canyon Dam a mistake.

Defenders of the dam ask what we would really gain from a breach. The dam-based ecosystem has attracted peregrine falcons, bald eagles, carp, and catfish. Lake Powell brings in $400 million a year from tourists enjoying houseboats, powerboats, and personal watercraft—a local economy that couldn’t be replaced by the thinner wallets of rafters and hikers.

“It would be completely foolhardy and ridiculous to deactivate that dam,” says Floyd Dominy during a phone conversation from his home in Boyce, Virginia. Dominy, now 89 years old and retired since 1969, was the legendary Bureau of Reclamation commissioner who oversaw construction of the dam in the early 1960s. “You want to lose all that pollution-free energy? You want to destroy a world-renowned tourist attraction—Lake Powell—that draws more than 3 million people a year?”

It goes against the American grain: the notion that knocking something down and returning it to nature might be progress just as surely as replacing wildness with asphalt and steel. But 30 years of environmental law, punctuated by the crash of the salmon industry, has shifted power from the dam builders to the conservationists.

The most fateful change may be a little-noticed 1986 revision in a federal law. Since the 1930s, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission has issued 30- to 50-year operating licenses to the nation’s 2,600 or so privately owned hydroelectric dams. According to the revised law, however, FERC must consider not only power generation, but also fish and wildlife, energy conservation, and recreational uses before issuing license renewals. In November 1997, for the first time in its history, FERC refused a license against the will of a dam owner, ordering the Edwards Manufacturing Company to rip the 160-year-old Edwards Dam out of Maine’s Kennebec River. More than 220 FERC hydropower licenses will expire over the next 10 years.

If there is one moment that captures the turning momentum in the dam wars, it might be the dinner Richard Ingebretsen shared with the builder of Glen Canyon Dam, Floyd Dominy himself. During the last go-go dam years, from 1959 to 1969, this dam-building bureaucrat was more powerful than any Western senator or governor. Ingebretsen is a Salt Lake City physician, a Mormon Republican, and a self-described radical environmentalist. Four years ago, he founded the Glen Canyon Institute to lobby for the restoration of Glen Canyon. Ingebretsen first met Dominy when the former commissioner came to Salt Lake City in 1995 to debate David Brower over the issue of breaching Glen Canyon Dam. To his surprise, Ingebretsen found that he liked the man. “I really respect him for his views,” he says.

Their dinner took place in Washington, D.C., in early 1997. At one point Dominy asked Ingebretsen how serious the movement to drain Lake Powell really was. Very serious, Ingebretsen replied. “Of course I’m opposed to putting the dam in mothballs,” Dominy said. “But I heard what Brower wants to do.” (Brower had suggested that Glen Canyon could be breached by coring out some old water bypass tunnels that had been filled in years ago.) “Look,” Dominy continued, “those tunnels are jammed with 300 feet of reinforced concrete. You’ll never drill that out.”

With that, Dominy pulled out a napkin and started sketching a breach. “You want to drain Lake Powell?” he asked. “What you need to do is drill new bypass tunnels. Go through the soft sandstone around and beneath the dam and line the tunnels with waterproof plates. It would be an expensive, difficult engineering feat. Nothing like this has ever been done before, but I’ve done a lot of thinking about it, and it will work. You can drain it.”

The astonished Ingebretsen asked Dominy to sign and date the napkin. “Nobody will believe this,” he said. Dominy signed.

Of course, it will take more than a souvenir napkin to return the nation’s great rivers to their full wildness and health. Too much of our economic infrastructure depends on those 75,000 dams for anyone to believe that large numbers of river blockers, no matter how obsolete, will succumb to the blow of Bruce Babbitt’s hammer anytime soon. For one thing, Babbitt himself is hardly in a position to be the savior of the rivers. Swept up in the troubles of a lame-duck administration and his own nagging legal problems (last spring Attorney General Janet Reno appointed an independent counsel to look into his role in an alleged Indian casino–campaign finance imbroglio), this interior secretary is not likely to fulfill his dream of bringing down a really big dam. But a like-minded successor just might. It will take a president committed and powerful enough to sway both Congress and the public, but it could come to pass.

Maybe Glen Canyon Dam and the four Snake River dams won’t come out in my lifetime, but others will. And as more rivers return to life, we’ll take a new census of emancipated streams: We freed the Neuse, the Kennebec, the Allier, the Rogue, the Elwha, and even the Tuolumne. We freed the White Salmon and the Souradabscook, the Ocklawaha and the Genesee. They will be untidy and unpredictable, they will flood and recede, they will do what they were meant to do: run wild to the sea.

Bruce Barcott is the author of  The Measure of a Mountain: Beauty and Terror on Mount Rainier  (Sasquatch, 1997). Reprinted by permission from Outside (Feb. 1999). Subscriptions: $18/yr. (12 issues) from Box 54729, Boulder, CO 80328-4729. Copyright © 1999 Mariah Publications Corporation.