Salmon or Swimming Lakes: Framing Dam Removal

Dam removal is a growing trend, and it will always involve complex emotional and political motivations.

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.

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