Salmon or Swimming Lakes: Framing Dam Removal

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Photo by NOAA, via Wikimedia Commons.

The old saying that you can’t step in the same river twice, attributed to the ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus, is more completely cited as follows: “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it is not the same river, and he is not the same man.” Just as the Rogue, Sandy, and Elwha will never be quite the same as they were before the dams, people who care about them, and people who care about rivers in general, will never be the same as they were before dam removal.

Out on the rivers of America, dams keep falling. In 2016 and 2017, a total of 158 dams were removed—more than in the entire decade of the 1990s. More than a thousand dams have been removed since 1999. The trend will only roll on in the future, as dam removal becomes a more and more normal decision for resource managers and river stakeholders. The dams keep getting older—an estimated 2.1 million dams will be more than fifty years old by 2020. An ODFW biologist on the Rogue once told me that the basin, with its many small dams on tributaries, was a “target-rich environment.” For dam removal advocates, nearly any watershed in the country presents a target-rich environment.

Everyone thinks that their situation is special—the people I interviewed insisted that the situation on the Elwha or Sandy or Rogue was a one-off, unrelated and inapplicable to the Klamath or the Snake or to anyplace else. Technically, they were right—not many dams have the Elwha’s giant salmon or the Rogue’s hobby irrigators. But they were also wrong. Six weeks after the Elwha removal, contractors blew a hole in the foot of 125-foot Condit Dam, and the White Salmon River thundered through. On the White Salmon, just like the Rogue, Sandy, and Elwha, local people wanted to keep their lake, and the owners had to move carefully.

But in the end it, too, yielded to the ghosts of tribal fishers and salmon, and the result, enshrined on YouTube by National Geographic, was a river exploding through its concrete wall and draining a ninety-eight-year-old reservoir in about six hours. Steelhead swam above the dam site and spawned the next year. Condit certainly had its own special details, but it shared a lot of political features with Elwha, Savage Rapids, and Marmot Dams. And so do thousands of other dams all across the country.

The experience, technical knowledge, and political comfort created by one dam removal inevitably facilitate others. Many of the stakeholders who took part in these northwestern removals were members of national or regional organizations. Sometimes the effect is direct; soon after the Savage Rapids removal decision, three other major dams came down on the Rogue. Some attributed this to the Savage Rapids experience. According to Bob Hunter, “thinking on the Rogue [had] changed.” But more broadly, the experience of dam removals in the interconnected, globalized twenty-first century will shape the future on rivers across the country and world. Just as scientists and managers use hydrological and ecological data to improve future dam removals, political activists apply political knowledge. No matter the protestations of local stakeholders, one thing does lead to another.

The most basic political lesson has been learned. Although dam removal was seen as exceptional and extreme as recently as 2003, even by salmon advocates, those days are past. Dam removal, as a concept, will never shock people again. It will continue to anger them, though. Out of that anger is born controversy, delay, expense, and personal animus. But no one wants this. Just as Bill Lowry saw in 2003, success depends on fostering receptivity. The fate of rivers, dams, fisheries, and the people who care about them will depend on how skillfully activists approach the situation. But first they need to understand each other, and the ungainly policy subsystem they’ve begun to build. Here, I offer hypotheses about dam removal politics. It would be great if they were tested by future scholars, and even better if they were applied by future restorationists.

Hypothesis: The most important frames in dam removal politics are cultural and emotional.

For an introduction to the complexities of dam removal framing, all you have to do is turn on the radio. Song after song, you’ll hear about rivers—rivers as fishing holes, rivers as love spots, rivers as youth, rivers as old age, rivers as eternity, rivers as monstrous, rivers as sublime. You’ll hear about river infrastructure, too—Chevys at levees, teenage boys taking girls down to the reservoir, dams rising in Colorado, dams falling in Pennsylvania. Rivers make people feel everything there is to feel. Those feelings, expressed through political frames, make politics and policy.

Feelings collided on the Rogue, the Sandy, and the Elwha, as stakeholders looked at the dam, the reservoir, the river, the fish, and felt different things. Of course, this is true of nearly any land issue: forests can be valuable habitat or valuable timber. If everyone felt the same way about their landscapes and resources . . . well, environmental policy scholars wouldn’t have much to talk about. But dam removal goes beyond other such issues in two ways.

The first is simply the public nature of rivers. You can buy and possess a forest or a grassland or a farm, but your purchase ends on the riverbank, and the water flowing past it belongs to everyone. The public nature of rivers allows all parties—upstream, downstream, and even beyond the watershed—to see the river as their business. And there is room, in America’s political and legal system, for each of them to pursue and promote their vision of the river.

The other frame that distinguishes dam removal was that the environmentalists, fishers, and tribes did not see a threatened landscape in need of protection; rather, they saw a degraded watershed or fishery in need of restoration. As recently as 1990, Friends of the Earth’s Jim Baker said, “For all our hard work just to keep the status quo, we have never successfully struck a blow for nature, and forced the removal of a dam that developers never should have built in the first place.” Now, during the last three decades, dam removal advocates have been on a rescue mission.

The frame through which the dam removers portrayed their mission was simple and durable—a wild river full of fish. Many people who were still alive in the 1980s and 1990s remembered the enormous surges of fish that had once been the pride of the Pacific Northwest. These fish were culturally charismatic, economically valuable, ecologically powerful, and strongly representative of the region and its rivers. It’s hard to imagine a more effective policy image than a returning salmon leaping—crash!—into a dam as it strives to reach its ancient spawning grounds. Dam removal alliances had a variety of reasons for supporting removal efforts—restoring wilderness, improving fishing, carrying out their regulatory and management responsibilities—but no matter their motivation, the frame of the dams as harmful, and of the river as a natural system that should be allowed to return to its natural state, worked.

The environmentalists’ rhetoric about freeing the river, and the tribe’s efforts to return the salmon-based prosperity that had been stolen from them, were different from the agencies’ or the fishing groups’ less emotional frames, but at bottom they demanded the same thing: a free-flowing river and a restored ecosystem.

Excerpted with permission from Same River Twice: The Politics of Dam Removal and River Restoration by Peter Brewitt, published by Oregon State University Press, 2019.

  • Updated on Jul 30, 2021
  • Originally Published on Aug 1, 2019
Tagged with: fish, water
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