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

| May-June 1999

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.

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