The mighty are falling. Right now, they're toppling one after another — those dams and dikes that have altered the natural flow of Northwestern waters for the past century.
Consider: On October 9, the 500-foot-long earthen Savage Rapids Dam, which had blocked the lower Rogue River since 1921 bit the dust. A week before, contractors breached the last of the dikes that had kept Puget Sound tides from most of the Nisqually River estuary since the turn of the 20th century.
Next year, PacifiCorp will take down its 125-foot concrete Condit Dam, which has blocked southwest Washington's White Salmon River just north of the Columbia Gorge since 1913. The Elwha dams, which have kept salmon from the watershed that forms 20 percent of Olympic Natonal Park since long before the park was created, will start coming down in 2011. And 25 government agencies, state governments, tribes, and interest groups have agreed with PacifiCorp on a process that may lead to removal of four dams that have blocked the Klamath River for most of the past century.
These are not minor projects. The Nisqually project is the biggest estuary restoration in the Northwest. The Condit project will be the biggest dam removal in the United States, and the Elwa dam removal will be even bigger. And the Klamath? “When the Klamath dams come down it will be the biggest dam removal project the world has ever seen,” said Steve Rothert of American Rivers. Rothert, whose group was at the negotiating table, said that when the dams come down, “we will be able to watch on a grand scale as a river comes back to life.”
Need more? Some environmental groups also hope that the Klamath agreement points the way toward a decision to breach the lower Snake River dams.
As you can easily imagine, the factors in such massive alterations of the landscape cut in many directions. That has meant environmental groups are lined up on opposing sides of some of the disputes.
Take the Klamath River, for starters. Virtually no one claims that taking out the Klamath dams would be a bad idea. But will the Klamath agreement hold up? That remains to be seen. And would the benefits of dam removal outweigh the environmental costs imposed on the Klamath Basin by the agreement? Some environmental groups say they won't. They argue that if you're fixated on the welfare of salmon and the principle of dam removal, then you may not look too closely at the price tag. If price is a consideration, though, you may decide that the rewards are too uncertain and the known costs are too high.
PacifiCorp owns the Klamath dams, the first of which went up in 1918, the last in 1962. The company itself, which operates in Washington, Oregon, California, and Utah, is owned by MidAmerican Energy Holdings Company, which in turn is largely owned by Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway. It had been owned by Glasgow-based Scottish Power. But representatives of the Hoopa Valley, Yurok, Karuk and Klamath tribes demonstrated against the dams' effect on Klamath River salmon outside the company's annual meeting in 2004, and the next year, Scottish Power unloaded its American subsidiary.
Federal licenses to operate the dams expired in 2006, and more than a decade ago, PacifiCorp started the relicensing process. NOAA Fisheries and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service insisted that the company install fish ladders. The California Energy Commission, the Interior Department, and FERC concluded that if fish ladders were the price of relicensing, PacifiCorp and its customers would save money if the utility just took the dams down.
The Hoopa Valley tribe, which occupies a reservation along the Klamath's largest tributary, the Trinity River, northeast of Eureka, would love to see the Klamath dams come down. But the Hoopas don't like the proposed agreement. Seattle attorney Tom Schlosser, who represents the tribe, explains that “it's not a dam-removal agreement. It's a planning process.”
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