July 17, 2003

Battle over keeping dams rages on

  • Small dam removal gains support, larger dams still a tough call
    Special to the Journal

     Lower Granite Dam
    U.S. Army Corps of Engineers/Walla Walla District
    The Lower Granite Dam on Idaho’s lower Snake River is one of four proposed for demolition by environmental groups who believe removing the dams will restore Northwest salmon.

    There are signs that a historic 200-year era of dam building in America appears to be gradually yielding to a new era of dam busting, a movement bent on removing aging river barriers in favor of everything from restoring salmon runs to creating new community recreation areas.

    A growing number of case studies is proving the wisdom of removing certain dams across the country to restore free-flowing waterways. But the seemingly easy task of tearing down what was once so difficult to build up is complicated by unknown economic impacts more numerous than the thousands of tree stumps at the bottom of many dam reservoirs.

    What really happens when the two dams on the Olympic Peninsula’s Elwha River are removed? The 105-foot-high Elwha Dam and the 210-foot-high Glines Canyon Dam, both concrete structures, hold back so much water that experts say extensive downstream infrastructure modifications will be required to maintain existing water supplies.

    What happens when the 125-foot Condit Dam on the White Salmon River at the base of Mt. Adams is torn down in 2006? Will it turn out to be a boon to salmon production as well as providing recreation for white-water kayakers, as expected?

    What happens when, and if, the four hydroelectric dams on the lower Snake River are removed? Will river trade simply shift to highways and railroads, will those alternative routes need expensive upgrading, how many tugboat and barge jobs and businesses will be lost in the process, and how will the lost electricity resources be replaced?

    A drop in the bucket

    Somewhere around 400 dams have been removed over the past several decades for a variety of reasons. But compared to the 77,000 dams in the nation’s general inventory, which doesn’t include tens of thousands of smaller dams, the option of dam removal has clearly been minimal to this point.

    That’s the conclusion of the recently released 2000-2002 study by the Aspen Institute of Washington, D.C., titled “Dam Removal — A New Option For A New Century” (, an in-depth analysis of an issue that involves emotional and subjective feelings as much as engineering numbers, demolition techniques and environmental impact scenarios.

    The two years of dialogue meetings directed by the Aspen Institute brought together an unlikely mix of 26 pro-fish and pro-dam supporters who eventually reached a broader understanding of the need to add dam removal as an option in evaluating the future of dam structures, according to the study.

    One of the 26 who attended the periodic values-based dialogue sessions from 2000 to 2002 is Steven Malloch of Seattle, representing Trout Unlimited.

    “The most useful way to think about the Aspen report and dam removal as a topic is that all dams aren’t created equal. Even the Snake-River-dams-come-down-over-my-dead-body types ended up talking about the whole range of dams, including some that powered grist mills in 1770 and don’t make sense any more,” Malloch said.

    “Some dams in the West are still useful but if they block salmon it still probably makes sense to take some of them down. The Snake River dams are huge, with benefits for a lot of different kinds of people — power, navigation and the rest — so they’re going to be controversial,” he said. “Point me toward any big dam and I will find you somebody who wants it down for whatever reasons.”

    Another who participated, Jane Hannuksela, general counsel for NOAA in Seattle, said she was there to promote the agency’s protection of fish, adding that she hoped the study’s results would make it easier for people to consider removing dams that no longer serve their original purpose.

    Still, when it comes to large hydroelectric dams like the ones on the Snake River, instead of smaller irrigation dams, figuring out the probable economic and social costs becomes very difficult, she said.

    “Costs are a tough thing, such as replacement power, for instance. What are the benefits of removing one, how do you justify the societal aspects? When you can’t put a dollar value on it, it’s a more subjective decision,” she said.

    Complicated decision

    Practically speaking, the physical dismantling of a dam is akin to the recent demolition of Bellevue’s I-405 overpass. But the multiple impacts of releasing the captured waters of a dam — particularly a Northwest hydropower dam — complicate the decision to send in the cranes and bulldozers.

    A September 2002 study by Rand, the well-known Arlington, Va., research and analysis firm, concluded that removing the four Snake River dams and investing in clean energy, such as wind power, would create jobs as well as improve the environment.

    The report, “Generating Electric Power in the Pacific Northwest,” explores the economic impacts of different energy scenarios, predicting that replacing power from the dams with investments in energy efficiency would create almost 15,000 new jobs.

    The changing views about dam removal are echoed in a Washington Post column by William Booth, who writes that Portland General Electric’s $16 million agreement to remove Marmot Dam on the Sandy River and another on the Little Sandy, about 50 miles east of Portland, involves hydroelectric dams that are still producing about 10 megawatts of power, “a move that once would have been almost unimaginable.”

    Over the next few years, other Northwest dams are expected to come down, including two on the Elwha River on the Olympia Peninsula, the Savage Rapids Dam on Oregon’s Rogue River, and the Condit Dam on Washington’s White Salmon River.

    Hard to remove

    Despite the gains made by those who support dam removal, many experts warn that decisions must be made carefully in evaluating the destruction of dams.

    “It’s harder to take out a dam than you might think,” said Julie Keil, director of hydroelectric licensing at Portland General Electric. She said demolition of the dams on the Sandy and Little Sandy rivers is the most complex dismantling project ever attempted in the United States.

    Likewise, others in the power industry are warning that enthusiasm for removing dams to regenerate salmon runs instead of generating electricity needs to be tempered by careful consideration of the dams’ original purposes and their current value in the Northwest power grid, particularly because even the environmental groups admit they don’t believe dismantling dams alone guarantees the return of a vibrant fisheries industry in the region.

    In Portland, Northwest Power Planning Council Chairman Frank L. Cassidy Jr. wrote a cautionary letter recently to the Rand group, commenting at length about its power study in the Pacific Northwest.

    “Although the council is listed among the organizations consulted by Rand ... no use was made of the significant information contained in the council’s power plan regarding electricity demand forecasts, ranges of fuel prices or the availability of cost-effective efficiency and generation resources.

    “We believe a decision to remove dams should be justified based on the potential benefits to salmon and other activities compared to the sub-regional costs of removing the dams and replacing the electricity supply ... including the fact that the Bonneville Power Administration and its customers are likely to have to repay the debt on the dams even if they are removed, a consideration omitted from the Rand analysis,” Cassidy wrote.

    He noted that a 2002 Corps of Engineers study of the lower Snake River dam removal concept determined that long-term effects would include (negative) annual regional impacts of $272 million in business transactions, $252 million in lost personal income, 2,290 jobs per year and (a number of) negative socio-economical impacts at sub-regional levels.

    “The removal of the four lower Snake River dams has an economic cost that may be small relative to the entire Northwest or national economy but large compared to the estimated benefits,” Cassidy warned.


    Terry Stephens is a freelance writer based in Arlington. He can be reached by e-mail at

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