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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Dismantling Dams in Washington State

Air Date: Week of

Jennifer Schmidt of member station KPLU in Seattle looks at the future of the Elwha River. Two hydroelectric dams on the Elwha have seriously depleted the river's salmon population; now, with an OK from Congress, environmentalists hope to remove the dams and restore the river to a more natural state.


CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth, I'm Steve Curwood.

The power of falling water. When it was first harnessed to make electricity more than a century ago, it promised to bring clean and virtually limitless power to nearly every corner of the globe. If there was a river, chances were there was a spot for a hydroelectric dam. Today, hydropower is still relatively cheap and clean. But there can be some stiff environmental costs. Large areas can be flooded, and fish migrations can be stymied. In Washington State, where huge salmon runs are now history, there's a movement to unblock a key river by removing two dams. Jennifer Schmidt, of member station KPLU in Tacoma reports that after years of debate Congress has endorsed the effort to restore the river, but a major obstacle remains: money.

(Sound of river)

SCHMIDT: On its 44-mile journey from the snowfields of the Olympic Mountains to the Strait of Juan de Fuca at the northern edge of Washington's Olympic Peninsula, the Elwha River courses through some of the most pristine wilderness in America. Native people in the area still tell stories of a time before the dams were built, when the Elwha was one of just a few rivers in the Northwest to support all five species of Pacific salmon, including giant 100-pound King salmon.

(Sound of water over dam)

SCHMIDT: The dams are a place of mourning for many members of the Lower Elwha Klallam tribe. Tribal member Rachel Kowalski often comes here to contemplate the loss of the salmon. Kowalski says tribal elders protested back in 1911, when the first Elwha dam was built without a fish ladder, but she says nobody listened.

KOWALSKI: They raised their voices, they, you know, let everyone know, go over there, look at all the dead fish, there's nothing but millions of dead fish, go check it out. Stop it, do something. And they were disregarded.

SCHMIDT: In 1926, another dam, known as the Glines Canyon dam, was erected further upstream. Together the aging concrete structures block all but the first five miles of the Elwha to migrating salmon.

(Sound of fish hatchery)

SCHMIDT: At a fish hatchery run by the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe near the mouth of the river, fisheries manager Patrick Crain tosses feed to a new batch of juvenile salmon.

CRAIN: This year we are raising about 700, 000 Coho, so each of these tanks has about 100,000 fish in the tank.

SCHMIDT: Crain says the hatchery has been trying to maintain the purity of the last remaining Elwha salmon. But as stacks of studies in his office reveal, each year fewer wild salmon return to the river, and Crain says it's becoming increasingly hard to sustain the genetic diversity vital for healthy fish.

CRAIN: The race we are in is to try to build up the runs again, and restore the runs to the river before we start losing that gene pool which the successful restoration depends upon.

SCHMIDT: The Lower Elwha Klallam tribe has been fighting for decades to have the dams removed. But in recent years, they've gained some important allies. Environmentalists, state and Federal fish and wildlife agencies and the National Park Service have also joined the fight. The upper dam lies entirely within Olympic National Park, and park officials say it's incompatible with the park's mission. They also say, unlike other rivers, the potential for returning the Elwha to its natural state is extremely high, because most of the watershed has been protected from development. Last fall, in an unprecedented move, Congress authorized the Elwha's complete restoration, including, if necessary, dam removal. However, it didn't appropriate any money for the project. Still, environmentalists say the vote was an important one. Shawn Cantrell is with Friends of the Earth.

CANTRELL: The precedent we do feel that it sets is that it says that past damage, whether it be caused by dams or other human activities, don't have to be a forever thing. That you can go back and recover and restore ecosystems that have been damaged by past exploitation.

SCHMIDT: But dismantling the dams will mean a pulp-and-paper mill in nearby Port Angeles will lose an important source of cheap electricity. In response to the company's concerns, Congress agreed to compensate the mill for the cost of acquiring higher-priced electricity elsewhere. Orville Campbell, who manages the dams for their owner, the James River Corporation, remains unenthusiastic about tearing the dams down. But, he says, overall, the legislation is fair.

CAMPBELL: The good that is coming out of this is that the companies' interests have been substantially met and that the companies will be out of a contentious conflict and we can get back to the business we know best, which is making paper.

SCHMIDT: Last year's legislation directed the Interior Department to prepare a report by early 1994 on the feasibility, costs, and benefits of removing the dams. Environmentalists are hoping Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt will make a strong case for dismantling the projects. And in fact Babbitt has already stated that there is an extraordinarily compelling case to be made for restoration of the Elwha and perhaps other rivers.

BABBITT: I think in a fair number of cases we are going to find that the environmental benefits in terms of more salmon, healthier streams, more livelihood, more jobs for fishermen, actually justify the economic investment in restoration and in some cases the actual removal of structures.

SCHMIDT: A recent report, commissioned by the Lower Elwha Klallam tribe, found that if the dams were removed, increased commercial and sport fishing and tourism could bring in about $280 million dollars over the next 75 years. Still, Babbitt says he hasn't made up his mind.

BABBITT: It is one thing to look at a dam and say, gee, wouldn't it be interesting to have a pristine river chock-a-block full of King salmon. It is something else to say, I can show you that in the context of these times, this budget, the costs of replacement power, that this is something that I actually recommend that we do.

SCHMIDT: Even if Babbitt does come out in favor of removing the Elwha dams, he still has to convince Congress to come up with the estimated $135 million dollars it will take to restore the river. But if lawmakers do not appropriate the money, environmentalists vow to resume the battle over the Elwha dams in Federal court. For Living on Earth, I'm Jennifer Schmidt reporting.



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