Blow Up

Swing a hammer, light a fuse, and let the dams come tumbling down. So goes the cry these days on American rivers, where vandals of every stripe—enviros and fishermen and interior secretaries, among others—wage battle to uncork the nation's bound-up waters.

Bruce Barcott

Heading out the door? Read this article on the new Outside+ app available now on iOS devices for members! Download the app.


By God but we built some dams!

We backed up the Kennebec in Maine and the Neuse in North Carolina and a hundred creeks and streams that once ran free but don’t anymore. We stopped the Colorado with the Hoover, high as 35 houses, and because it pleased us we kept damming and diverting the Colorado until the river no longer reached the sea. We dammed our way out of the Great Depression with the Columbia’s Grand Coulee, a dam so immense you had to borrow another fellow’s mind because yours alone wasn’t big enough to wrap around it. The Coulee concrete was not even hardened by the time we finished building a bigger one still, cleaving the Missouri with Fort Peck Dam, a structure second only to the Great Wall of China, a jaw-dropper so outsize they put it on the cover of the first issue of Life, and wasn’t that a hell of a thing? We turned the Tennessee, the Colorado, the Columbia, and the Snake from continental arteries into still bathtubs. We dammed the Clearwater, the Boise, the Santiam, the Deschutes, the Skagit, the Willamette, and the McKenzie. We dammed the North Platte and the North Yuba, the South Platte and the South Yuba. We dammed the Blue, the Green, and the White as well. We dammed Basher Kill and Schuylkill; we dammed Salt River and we dammed Sugar Creek. We dammed Crystal River and Muddy Creek, the Little River and the Rio Grande. We dammed the Minnewawa and the Minnesota, and we dammed the Kalamazoo. We dammed the Swift and we dammed the Dead.

One day we looked up and saw 75,000 dams impounding more than half a million miles of river. We looked down and saw rivers scrubbed free of salmon and sturgeon and shad. Cold rivers ran warm, warm rivers ran cold, and fertile muddy banks turned barren.

And that’s when we stopped talking about dams as instruments of holy progress and started talking about blowing them out of the water.

Surrounded by a small crowd of Central Valley citizens, Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt stood atop McPherrin Dam, on Butte Creek, not far from Chico, California, in the hundred-degree heat of the Sacramento Valley. The constituencies this crowd represented — farmers, wildlife conservationists, state fish and game officials, irrigation managers — had been at one another’s throats for the better part of a century, wrangling over every trickle of water that flows through this naturally arid basin. On this day, however, amity reigned. At the appointed moment, with CNN cameras rolling and a New York Times photographer framing the scene, Babbitt hoisted a sledgehammer above his head and — “with evident glee,” as one reporter later noted — brought his tool of destruction down upon the dam. Golf claps all around. “That’s one small blow for salmon!” Babbitt told the crowd.

The secretary’s hammer strike last July marked the beginning of the end for McPherrin Dam, an ugly concrete plug that was ingloriously destroyed a few weeks later by a backhoe affixed with a demolition hammer. McPherrin and three other Butte Creek irrigation dams were coming out to encourage the return of spring-run chinook salmon, which had been blocked from their spawning grounds for more than 75 years. The day after his McPherrin Dam duties last July, Babbitt flew to Medford, Oregon, and took a swing at 30-year-old Jackson Street Dam, which had turned Bear Creek, a tributary of the Rogue River, into what has been called “an algae-clogged fish killer.” Last year alone, Babbitt cracked the concrete of four dams on Wisconsin’s Menominee River and then repeated the feat at two Elwha River dams in Washington State; at Quaker Neck Dam, on North Carolina’s Neuse River; and at 160-year-old Edwards Dam, on the Kennebec in Maine.

By any reckoning, this was a weird inversion of the natural order. Interior secretaries are supposed to christen dams, not smash them. But that was before this particular Interior secretary decided that lots of dams needed to come down, and began saying so, starting with a 1994 speech at Yellowstone National Park. That political cannonade had its intended effect. A few days later, Babbitt’s puzzled boss, President Bill Clinton, asked him why the White House was getting bombarded with calls from apoplectic western politicians who wanted to know if the Secretary of the Interior had lost his mind.

“Yes, that created a bit of a ruckus,” Babbitt told me recently, sounding pleased. “I gave a speech to a meeting of Trout Unlimited in Yellowstone. I told them, ‘I want to be the first secretary to tear down a big dam.'”

Sixty years ago, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, accompanied by his Interior Secretary, Harold Ickes, toured the West to dedicate four of the largest dams in the history of civilization. Babbitt, who knows his history, has been following in their footsteps, but this secretary is preaching the gospel of dam-going-away. “America overshot the mark in our dam-building frenzy,” he told the Ecological Society of America last August. “The public is now learning that we have paid a steadily accumulating price for these projects. … We did not build them for religious purposes and they do not consecrate our values. Dams do, in fact, outlive their function. When they do, some should go.”

Many dams continue, of course, to be invaluable pollution-free power plants. Hydroelectric dams provide 10 percent of the nation’s electricity (and half of our renewable energy). In the Northwest, dams account for 75 percent of the region’s power and bestow the lowest electrical rates in the nation. In the past the public was encouraged to believe that hydropower is something that is almost free, without cost; such assumptions were part of what made Grand Coulee and the other dams seem miraculous and good. But as Babbitt has been pointing out, there is a price, and it’s become an enormous one.

What we know now that we didn’t know in 1938 is that a river isn’t a water pipe. When you plug it, a river goes haywire. If you were to draw a cross-section of water moving in a free-flowing river, you’d draw millions of small circles of motion. It’s in these circles that water, as it tumbles and falls, lifts and deposits grains and pebbles. Dam a river, and it will drop most of this sediment in a still reservoir. Ecologically valuable debris, such as branches, wood particles, and gravel, get trapped behind the dam. The sediment may be mixed with an increasing concentration of pollutants — toxic chemicals leaching from abandoned mines, for example, or naturally occurring but dangerous heavy metals. Once the water passes through the dam it continues to scour, but it removes sediment without replacing it with upstream material. A dammed river is sometimes referred to as a “hungry” river, one that eats its bed and banks. Riverbeds and banks may turn into cobblestone streets, large stones cemented in by the ultrafine silt that passes through the dams. Biologists call this “armoring.”

 Naturally cold rivers may run warm after the sun heats water trapped in the reservoir; naturally warm rivers may run cold if their downstream flow is drawn from the bottom of deep reservoirs. Fish adapted to cold water won’t survive in warm water, and vice versa. (Water much warmer than 70 degrees Fahrenheit is lethal to most species of salmon; temperatures of 74 degrees were recorded on parts of the lower Snake last summer.) But dams kill fish in myriad ways, even as they play havoc with other aspects of riparian ecosystems.

As the toll on wild rivers became more glaringly evident in recent decades, opposition to dams started to go mainstream. By the 1990s, conservation groups, fishing organizations, and other river lovers began to advocate the kinds of action that had once been the exclusive province of environmental extremists and radical groups like Earth First!. Driven by changing economics, environmental law, and most of all the specter of vanishing fish, government policy makers began to find themselves echoing the conservationists. And then Bruce Babbitt, perhaps sensing the inevitable tide of history, entered the fray on the side of decommissioning.

So far, however, the dams taken out of commission have been small ones. Quaker Neck Dam, on the Neuse, removed in December 1997: seven feet high. Newport 11 Dam, on Vermont’s Clyde River, removed in August 1996: 19 feet high. McPherrin Dam, on Butte Creek, removed in August 1998: 10 feet high. Edwards Dam, on the Kennebec, coming down this summer: 24 feet high. It is one thing to punch through an old Maine grist mill, quite another to bring down one of the 100-foot-high monsters that squat in the rivers of the West. Bruce Babbitt may chip away at all the little dams he wants, but when it comes to ripping major federal hydropower projects out of western rivers, that’s when the politics start getting national and nasty. Twenty-two years ago, when President Jimmy Carter suggested pulling the plug on several grand dam projects, Western senators and representatives politically crucified him. Although dam opponents are much better armed in 1999 — this time they have more authoritative scientific and economic arguments on their side — there’s no indication that the coming political battles over decommissioning big dams won’t be just as nasty.

Still, as a symbol of the swiftly intensifying debate over antiquated and ecologically harmful dams, the hammer-swinging Interior Secretary approaches perfection. And he’s clearly enjoying his ongoing demolition tour. “The only question is whether it’ll be a sledgehammer or a jackhammer,” Babbitt said in an interview last October, contemplating future photo ops. “The jackhammer’s a nice little variant we used in northern California last week, in Marin County. You can get a lot more done with it. Every time I go out, you can feel the shift of public opinion that’s taking place. It is absolutely palpable.”

But these have been small, easy victories. Even as he leads the charge, Babbitt doesn’t quite seem ready for the long, bloody civil war over dams that lies ahead. Consider the Snake River, where the Gettysburg of this war may be fought over four federal hydropower dams near the Washington-Idaho state line. When I asked Babbitt about the Snake last fall he almost seemed to be itching for his hammer. “The escalating debate over dams is going to focus in the coming months on the Snake River,” he declared. “For the last 20 years we’ve been dancing around the issue, nibbling around the edges. In the meantime the Snake River runs are heading toward extinction. We’re now face-to-face with the question: Do the people of this country place more value on Snake River salmon or on those four dams? The scientific studies are making it clear that you can’t have both.”

Brave talk — but only a couple of weeks later, after a bruising budget skirmish with congressional dam proponents who accused him of planning to tear down dams all over the Northwest, Babbitt sounded like a man who had just learned a sobering lesson in the treacherous politics of dams. The chastened Interior secretary assured the public that “I have never advocated, and do not advocate, the removal of dams on the main stem of the Columbia-Snake river system.”

The town of Lewiston, Idaho, sits at the confluence of the Snake and Clearwater Rivers. It’s a quiet place of 33,000 solid citizens, laid out like a lot of small towns these days: One main road leads into the dying downtown core, the other to a thriving strip of Wal-Marts, gas stations, and fast-food greaseries. When Lewis (hence the name) and Clark floated through here in the autumn of 1805, they paused to complain about the river rapids — “Several of them verry bad,” the spelling-challenged Clark scrawled in his journal — before tucking into a hearty supper of roots and roasted dog. After making their way downriver to the confluence of the Snake and the Columbia, the explorers made note of the local Indians catching and drying coho salmon headed upriver to spawn. “The number of dead Salmon on the Shores & floating in the river is incrediable to say,” Clark wrote.

The river is still flowing, though it’s been dammed into a lake with nary a rapid nor a riffle — and precious few salmon — for nearly 150 miles. Between 1962 and 1975, four federal hydroelectric projects were built on the river by the Army Corps of Engineers: Ice Harbor Dam, Lower Monumental Dam, Little Goose Dam, and Lower Granite Dam. The dams added to the regional power supply, but more crucially, they turned the Snake from a whitewater roller-coaster into an easily navigable waterway. Once the dams went in, the surrounding wheat farmers could ship their grain on barges to Portland, Oregon, at one-half the cost of overland transport, and other industries also grew to depend on this cheap highway to the sea.

Like all dams, however, they were hell on the river and the fish — the chinook, coho, sockeye, and steelhead — that swam in it. True, some species of salmon still run up the river to spawn — though at a quarter of a percent of their original volume: By the beginning of this decade, runs that had once included up to five million fish had dwindled to less than 20,000. The Snake River coho have completely disappeared, and the sockeye are teetering on the brink of extinction.

In and around Lewiston, the two conflicting interests — livelihoods that depend on the dams on the one side, the fate of the fish on the other — mean that just about everyone is either a friend of the dams or a breacher. Lewiston is the place where the debate has advanced the farthest, where the battle lines have been most clearly drawn. The Snake is the dam-breaching movement’s first major test case, but it is also the place where the defenders of dams are planning to make their stand. Most important, the lower Snake may soon become the place where the government orders the first decommissioning of several big dams.

In the forefront of those who hope this happens is Charlie Ray, an oxymoron of a good ol’ boy environmentalist whose booming Tennessee-bred baritone and sandy hair lend him the aspect of a Nashville Network host. Ray makes his living as head of salmon and steelhead programs for Idaho Rivers United, a band of conservationists that has been raising a fuss about free-flowing rivers since 1991. At heart he’s not a tree-hugger, but a steelhead junkie. When you drive out to a dam with him, he’ll pass the time telling you where steelhead like to eat, how cool they like the water, how he divined this information by keeping meticulous notes every time he went fishing for ten years. “You hook a steelhead, man, you got 10,000 years of survival instinct on the end of that line.”

Despite Ray’s bluff good cheer, it’s not easy being a breacher in Lewiston. Wheat farming still drives a big part of the local economy, and here’s a guy going around telling folks they ought to drain their shipping port.

The pro-dam forces predict financial ruin if such a thing ever happens. “It’s a passionate issue with a lot of folks, because our very way of life is dependent upon those dams,” says chamber of commerce president Todd Klabenes. In the past year he has tried to rally local business owners and supported anti-breaching pronouncements passed by city councils and county commissions in the area. Lining up behind Klabenes and his allies are Lewiston’s twin pillars of industry, the Potlatch Corporation and the Port of Lewiston.

Potlatch, one of the country’s largest paper producers, operates its flagship pulp and paper mill in Lewiston. Potlatch executives will tell you the company wants the dams mainly because it doesn’t want to see the town economically devastated. Local environmentalists will tell you Potlatch wants the dams because it would be more difficult to discharge the mill’s warm effluent into a free-flowing, shallow river. Whatever the reason, it’s risky to buck the town’s biggest employer. “Potlatch employs 2,300 people here,” a Lewiston merchant who supports breaching told me, “and if they decided it would be a good idea to shop at my competition, I’d be out of business.”

Potlatch also provides Charlie Ray with a worthy foil in company spokesman Frank Carroll, who was hired by the paper company after spending 17 years working the media for the U.S. Forest Service. Frankie and Charlie have been known to scrap. At an anti-breaching rally in Lewiston this past September, Carroll stood off-camera with a group of wheat farmers watching Ray being interviewed by a local TV reporter. Fed up with hearing Ray’s spin, Carroll started shouting, “Bullshit, Charlie, that’s bullshit!” while the video rolled. Ray’s nothing more than a “paid operative,” Carroll says. Ray’s reaction: “Yeah, like Frankie’s not.”

“A lot of people are trying to trivialize the social and economic issues,” Carroll says, “trying to tell us the lives people have here don’t count, that we’ll open up a big bait shop and put everyone to work hooking worms. We resent it. Right now, there’s a blanket of prosperity that lies across this whole region, and that prosperity is due to the river in its current state — to its transportation.”

One of the things that makes all these issues visceral in Lewiston is that breaching isn’t just an abstraction here. It has actually happened. On March 1, 1992, not long after the sockeye had been listed as an endangered species, the Army Corps executed what it called a “test drawdown,” in which the reservoir behind Lower Granite Dam was drained and the river was left to run close to its natural level for one month. Thus, when the citizens of Lewiston looked out at the Snake in late March, they saw that their smooth blue river had turned into a stinking mudflat littered with dead carp, fishing equipment, old cars, soda machines, guns, cash registers, and at least one set of human remains. Horrified by the idea that a permanent drawdown might come next, the chambers of commerce in Lewiston and Clarkston (just across the river on the Washington side) took out newspaper ads showing dead fish rotting in the mud. “It really hit home,” says Klabenes.

It was not until 1995, however, that “breacher” became an epithet often preceded by the modifier “goddamn,” that the region’s farmers started talking about defending dams as if they were modern-day Alamos. “I envision the day,” one grower told the Lewiston Morning Tribune, “that I’m sitting on the dam with my 30-30 [rifle] saying, ‘Are you really going to do this?'”

In fact, you have to go back even farther to understand why the specter of decommissioning suddenly turned real in 1995, and why breaching may become a 21st century reality for Lewiston.

Ever since the dams started going up along the Snake River, biologists and engineers have been trying any number of expensive and sometimes fantastic schemes for reviving the rapidly declining salmon runs. These schemes include fish ladders, hatcheries, and a bizarre program in which young smolts are captured and shipped downriver in barges to ensure their safe passage to the sea. By the late 1980s, it was clear that nothing was working; the fish runs continued to plummet. In 1990, the Shoshone-Bannock Indians, who traditionally fished the Snake’s sockeye run, petitioned the National Marine Fisheries Service to list the fish as endangered. (Sockeye are lake spawners. The young hatch in Redfish Lake, in central Idaho, 900 miles from the Pacific Ocean. Thousands used to return via the Snake to breed; recent runs consisted of two or three fish, and last year there was only one.) The National Marine Fisheries Service agreed with the tribe and over the next few years designated every species of salmon in the Snake River as either threatened or endangered, imposing all kinds of costly regulations on the agencies that control the river.

So it happened that in 1995, under pressure from the federal courts, the National Marine Fisheries Service and the Army Corps of Engineers (which continues to operate the dams) agreed to launch a four-year study of the four lower Snake River dams. In tandem with the Fisheries Service, the Corps made a bombshell announcement. The study would consider three options: maintain the status quo, turbocharge the fish-barging operation, or initiate a “permanent natural river drawdown” — breaching.

Once the Corps agreed to proceed with its study — the report is due this December — an action that had always seemed like unthinkable nonsense began to seem like an officially sanctioned, respectable possibility. Two separate scientific studies concluded that breaching presented the best hope for saving the river. In 1997 the Idaho Statesman, the state’s largest newspaper, published a three-part series arguing that breaching the four dams would net local taxpayers and the region’s economy $183 million a year. That wasn’t to say there wouldn’t be an economic gut-punch: The Port of Lewiston would lose $34 million a year; the Bonneville Power Administration would be out an annual $85 million in construction bonds and up to $40 million in breaching costs, and would lose $250 million a year in sellable power. The benefits, the paper estimated, would arrive annually in the form of a $248 million boost in recreation and fishing and a $444 million savings in smolt-barging expenses, hatchery operations, and dam maintenance costs. The dams, the paper concluded, “are holding Idaho’s economy hostage.”

“That series was seismic,” says Reed Burkholder, a Boise-based breaching advocate. Charlie Ray agrees. “We’ve won the scientific argument,” he says. “And we’ve won the economic argument. We’re spending more to drive the fish to extinction than it’d cost to revive them.”

In fact, the economic argument is far from won. The Statesman’s numbers are not unimpeachable. The quarter-of-a-billion-dollar boost in recreation and fishing hinges on the assumption that the salmon runs will return to pre-1960s levels, which fisheries experts say might take up to 24 years, if it happens at all. The $34 million lost at the Port of Lewiston each year, however, would be certain and immediate.

From a regional perspective, the Northwest can do without the power of the four lower Snake River dams; they account for only about four percent of the region’s electricity supply. The dams aren’t built for flood control. But one of the most tightly held beliefs in the Northwest is that the dams turned eastern Washington and Oregon’s dry scabland into prosperous cropland. Thus an attack on any dam is seen as an attack on the regional farm economy. Yet three of the four lower Snake River dams provide no agricultural irrigation whatsoever. Lower Granite Dam provides water for a golf course. Only Ice Harbor Dam is a boon to local farmers — all 13 of them.

What the issue comes down to, then, is the Port of Lewiston and its manager, a South Dakotan stoic named Dave Doeringsfeld. Doeringsfeld’s pitch is simple. The barges that carry Lewiston’s wheat to Portland draft 13 feet, six inches. With the dams, the Snake maintains a minimum 14-foot depth. Without them, it shallows to less than ten. You take the dams out, Doeringsfeld says, “and transportation costs go up 200 to 300 percent.

“Granted, those dams have an impact on salmon survival,” Doeringsfeld continues, “but are they the primary reason we’ve got crashing salmon numbers? We lose 98 percent of the smolts that make it to the ocean. Let’s ignore that! Let’s go back to destroying dams and people’s lives.”

No matter how frustrated they sound, the pro-dam lobbyists know they possess a powerful, not-so-secret weapon: Senator Slade Gorton, the Washington Republican who holds the commanding post of chairman of the Subcommittee on Interior Appropriations. Widely considered the region’s craftiest politician, Gorton has built his political base by advertising himself as the foe of liberal Seattle environmentalists, and with his hands on Interior’s purse strings, he can back up the role with real clout. The irrigation farmers of eastern Washington are his core constituency. As determined as Bruce Babbitt is to bring down a big dam, Slade Gorton may be more determined to stop him.

During October’s federal budget negotiations, Gorton offered to allocate $22 million to begin the removal of two modest dams in the Elwha River, on the Olympic Peninsula, a salmon-restoration project dear to the hearts of dam-breaching advocates. But Gorton agreed to fund the Elwha breaching if — and only if — the budget included language forbidding federal officials from unilaterally ordering the dismantling of any dam, including those in the Columbia River Basin. Babbitt and Kathleen McGinty, then-chairman of the Council on Environmental Quality, balked at Gorton’s proposal. As a result, the 1999 budget includes zero dollars for removal of the Elwha dams. “What [Gorton has] done is basically try to hold the Elwha Dam issue hostage,” charged Friends of the Earth activist Shawn Cantrell. “He’s now killing hostages.”

Gorton’s handling of the Elwha decommissioning fight may have been hardball politics for its own sake, but it was also a clear warning of things to come: If the Army Corps and the National Marine Fisheries Service recommend breaching on the Snake later this year, there will be hell to pay.

Meanwhile, here’s a hypothetical question: If you’re going to breach, how do you actually do it? How do you take those behemoths out? It depends on the dam, of course, but the answer on the Snake is shockingly simple.

“You leave the dam there,” Charlie Ray says. We’re standing downstream from Lower Granite Dam, 35 million pounds of steel encased in concrete. Lower Granite isn’t a classic ghastly curtain like Hoover Dam; it resembles nothing so much as an enormous half-sunk harmonica. Ray points to a berm of granite boulders butting up against the concrete structure’s northern end. “Take out the earthen portion and let the river flow around the dam. This is not high-tech stuff. This is front-end loaders and dump trucks.”

Up to now I’ve taken Ray’s pronouncements with a grain of salt, but now I’m thinking he’s completely full of it.

A few days later, however, I discuss the matter with the Army Corps engineer who has been assigned to study the problem of decommissioning the Snake River dams, and discover that Charlie is only a few adjectives short of the truth. It turns out that all you do need are loaders and dump trucks — really, really big ones. Steve Tatro, who works in the Corps’s Walla Walla, Washington, office, has the touchy job of devising the best way to breach his agency’s own dams.

First, he says, you’d draw down the reservoir, using the spillways and the lower turbine passages as drains. Then you’d bypass the concrete and steel entirely and excavate the earthen portion of the dam. This would involve scraping off a deep skin of football-size chunks of basalt, removing a lower layer of sand and gravel, and finally dredging out the silt core. Depending on the dam, that could mean as much as eight million cubic yards of excavated material.

As Tatro tells me all this, he seems aware of the treasonous implications of his assignment, and he tries hard to squeeze out all emotion as he describes the science of breaching. But his just-the-facts manner can’t disguise the reality that there is something deeply cathartic about the act. Most environmental restoration happens at the speed of nature. Which is to say, damnably slow. Breaching a dam — or better yet, blowing a dam — offers a rare moment of immediate gratification. When the Saint Etienne-du-Vigan dam, on France’s Allier River, was officially condemned last year, the power company that owned it drained its reservoir and set a date for its destruction. Not wanting to provide breaching aficionados with a poster-ready photo of their exploding dam, the company quietly sent the demolition team out a week early. Somebody at the electric company tipped off a local environmental group, one of whose members grabbed his camera and hightailed it over to the dam. He got there just in time to snap a few frames of the Saint Etienne-du-Vigan going down in a storm of powder, mortar, and stone. The photos are now available worldwide on the European Rivers Network’s Web page: “Dam bevor destruction,” reads one caption. Says another: “The Dam when it collapse!”

From the Mesopotamian canals to Hoover Dam, it took the human mind about 10,000 years to figure out how to stop a river. It has taken only 60 to accomplish the all-too-obvious environmental destruction. And now, recognition of that damage, together with changes in environmental law, has begun to balance a political and economic power structure that used to tilt heavily in the dam builders’ favor. In the process, the very culture of dam building has been transformed.

Until the 1930s most dam projects were matters of trial and (often) error, and were modest in size. In late-19th century England and America, ever larger and higher dams were constructed to provide reservoirs for growing industrial cities. When they broke — as one in 10 did in the United States — the results were spectacular catastrophes (like the infamous 1889 Johnstown flood), providing plenty of melancholy material for folksingers.

The enormous public works projects undertaken during FDR’s New Deal provided the impetus for great leaps in understanding about the properties of soil and rock under pressure. During the 1930s, dam builders began erecting titanic river-stoppers that approached an absolute degree of reliability and safety. Between 1902 and 1931, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation built 50 concrete dams, but with the beginning of construction of Hoover Dam, in ’31, the Bureau went dam-crazy. In Cadillac Desert, a 1986 book on western water issues that is often cited by both sides in breaching battles, author Marc Reisner calculates that between 1928 and 1956, Congress voted 77 separate authorizations for the Bureau, some of which included a dozen or more irrigation projects and dams. “In that astonishingly brief 28-year period,” Reisner writes, “the most fateful transformation that has ever been visited on any landscape, anywhere, was wrought.”

During the same period the Tennessee Valley Authority and the Army Corps were building hundreds of other projects. In this heroic age of dams, we spoke of wild rivers as if they were wild horses, running all over the countryside, doing nobody any damn good. Dams lit a million houses, turned deserts into wheat fields, and later powered the factories that built the planes and ships that beat Hitler and the Japanese. They became monuments to democracy and enlightenment during times of bad luck and hunger and war.

It took another 30 years before the opposition began to build, and author Edward Abbey was the first voice to really be heard. In Desert Solitaire and The Monkey Wrench Gang, Abbey envisioned a counterforce of wilderness freaks wiring bombs to the Colorado River’s Glen Canyon Dam, which he saw as the ultimate symbol of humanity’s destruction of the American West. Kaboom! Wildness returns to the Colorado.

After the last Glen Canyon Dam gate closed in the early afternoon of March 13, 1963, the spectacular cliff faces and scoured alcoves of the place Wallace Stegner once called “the most serenely beautiful of all of the canyons of the Colorado” were slowly submerged beneath what became Lake Powell. Having failed to stop it, environmentalists now dream of scuttling what has become an almost mythic symbol of riparian destruction.

Glen Canyon’s iconic power comes partly from its history. Four decades ago, while leading the fight against a slew of Western dams, David Brower, then executive director of the Sierra Club, agreed to a compromise that haunts him to this day: Conservationists would not oppose Glen Canyon and 11 other projects if plans for the proposed Echo Park and Split Mountain dams, in Utah and Colorado, were abandoned. Brower subsequently led the successful fight to keep additional dams out of the Grand Canyon area but remained bitter about the compromise. “Glen Canyon died in 1963,” Brower later wrote, “and I was partly responsible for its needless death.”

In 1981 Earth First! inaugurated its prankster career by unfurling an enormous black plastic “crack” down the face of Glen Canyon Dam. By 1996, this no longer seemed like a completely ridiculous gesture; that year, the Sierra Club rekindled the battle by calling for the draining of Lake Powell. With the support of Brower’s Earth Island Institute and other environmental groups, the proposal got a hearing before a subcommittee of the House Committee on Resources in September 1997. (Congress has taken no further action.) If supporters of Glen Canyon Dam thought that the entire exercise was merely an opportunity to mock the pie-in-the-sky pretensions of environmentalists, it may have backfired on them. A growing number of responsible voices now echo the monkeywrenchers’ arguments. Even longtime Bureau of Reclamation supporter Barry Goldwater admitted, before his death last year, that he considered Glen Canyon Dam a mistake.

All the symptoms of dam-kill are there. The natural heavy metals that the Colorado River used to disperse into the sea now collect in Lake Powell; boron, arsenic, selenium, and uranium have become so concentrated that medical officials warn pregnant women not to swim in the lake. And the lake is filling up: sediment has reduced the volume of Lake Powell from its original 27 million acre-feet to 23 million. One million acre-feet of water is lost to evaporation every year — enough, as Brower pointed out during his House testimony, to revive the dying upper reaches of the Gulf of California. Below the dam, hundred-year-old native willows that once relied upon the Colorado’s floods are going senescent; shrubby tamarisks, the invasive trash-trees of the Southwest, are replacing them. The natural river ran warm and muddy, and flushed its channel with floods; the dammed version runs cool, clear, and even. Trout thrive in the Colorado. This is like giraffes thriving on tundra.

Defenders of Glen Canyon Dam ask what we would really gain from a breach. The dam-based ecosystem has attracted new populations of peregrine falcon, bald eagle, carp, and catfish. Lake Powell brings in $400 million a year from tourists enjoying houseboats, powerboats, and personal watercraft — a local economy that couldn’t be replaced by the thinner wallets of rafters and hikers.

“It would be completely foolhardy and ridiculous to deactivate that dam,” says Floyd Dominy during a phone conversation from his home in Boyce, Virginia. Dominy, now 89 years old and retired since 1969, was the legendary Bureau of Reclamation commissioner who oversaw construction of the dam in the early 1960s. “You want to lose all that pollution-free energy? You want to destroy a world-renowned tourist attraction — Lake Powell — that draws more than three million people a year? Of course we covered up some delightful country: country that was inaccessible, country that would never be visited by very many people, which we turned into one of the most beautiful lakes in the world.”

It goes against the American grain: the notion that knocking something down and returning it to nature might be progress just as surely as replacing wildness with asphalt and steel. But an idea that once seemed utterly sentimental is now becoming eminently bankable.

In the early 1990s the economic calculations that buttressed our reliance on dams started falling apart. When salmon runs in the Pacific and Atlantic crashed, they killed tens of thousands of fishery jobs. At about the same time, the weight of 30 years of environmental law — the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969, requiring the Army Corps and the Bureau of Reclamation to produce environmental impact statements; the 1973 Endangered Species Act; the 1980 Northwest Power Act, forcing Bonneville Power Administration and other regional river managers to give the health of salmon runs and power needs equal consideration — began to shift power from the dam builders (who had already seen the number of new projects dwindle in the 1980s) to the conservationists.

In 1986, Congress passed a little-noticed revision in federal law that may prove to be the most fateful change in the way dams are regulated. That year, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which since the 1930s has issued 30- to 50-year operating licenses to the nation’s 2,600 or so privately owned hydroelectric dams, was forced to begin considering not only power generation, but also fish and wildlife, energy conservation, and recreational opportunities when re-upping dams. The new rules sat dormant until the first year of the Clinton administration, when it happened that the licenses for 157 dams, mostly in New England and the Great Lakes region, came up for renewal. (FERC’s usual caseload is around 15 to 20 renewals per year.) FERC historically had rubber-stamped license renewals, and all the 1993 licenses were approved, but under strict new conditions. Among other things, dam owners were required to increase stream flows, install fish passages, protect local riparian lands, and release periodic whitewater flows for rafters.

In November 1997, for the first time in its history, FERC refused a license against the will of a dam owner, ordering the Edwards Manufacturing Company to rip the 160-year-old Edwards Dam out of Maine’s Kennebec River. The power generated by the dam — 3.5 megawatts, enough to serve only about 2,600 homes — did not, according to FERC’s new perspective, justify wiping out the river’s shad and striped bass populations and nearly eliminating the few remaining shortnose sturgeon, Atlantic sturgeon, and Atlantic salmon. The long and short of it: The dam’s coming out. And over the next ten years, more than 220 FERC hydropower licenses will expire.

Like FERC and the Corps, the Bureau of Reclamation is trying to change its longtime cram-a-dam-down-their-throats reputation. In 1993, a new commissioner, Dan Beard, took charge and began arguing that the Bureau’s future lay in the intelligent management of existing water systems, not in new building projects. “I went in to reform the agency, and not all the employees were receptive to my ideas,” says Beard. “They thought I was crazy.” Still, since Beard left, in late 1995, the Bureau’s construction projects have been limited mainly to smaller urban wastewater problems and the finishing-up stages of water supply projects authorized in previous decades. Beard’s own subsequent history symbolizes a stunning sea-change at the Bureau: The man who held Floyd Dominy’s old job now runs the Washington, D.C., office of the National Audubon Society.

If there is one moment that captures the turning momentum in the dam wars, it might be the dinner Richard Ingebretsen shared with the builder of Glen Canyon Dam, Floyd Dominy himself, not long ago. During the last go-go dam years, from 1959 to 1969, this dam-building bureaucrat was more powerful than any Western senator or governor. Ingebretsen, for his part, is a Salt Lake City physician, a Mormon Republican, and a self-described radical environmentalist. Four years ago, he founded the Glen Canyon Institute to lobby for the restoration of Glen Canyon. Ingebretsen first met Dominy when the former commissioner came to Salt Lake City in 1995 to debate David Brower, now chairman of the Earth Island Institute, over the issue of breaching Glen Canyon Dam. To his surprise, Ingebretsen found that he liked the man. “I really respect him for his views,” he says.

During a trip to Washington, D.C., in early 1997, Ingebretsen called Dominy at home in northern Virginia and invited him out to dinner. In a restaurant that evening, Dominy asked how the movement to drain Lake Powell was going. “How serious is it?” he inquired. Very serious, Ingebretsen replied. Dominy took in this information. “Of course I’m opposed to putting the dam in mothballs,” he said. “But I heard what Brower wants to do.” (Brower had suggested that the breaching of Glen Canyon could be accomplished by coring out some old water bypass tunnels, which were filled in years ago.) “Look,” Dominy continued, “those tunnels are jammed with 300 feet of reinforced concrete. You’ll never drill that out.”

With that, Dominy pulled out a napkin and started sketching a breach. “You want to drain Lake Powell?” he asked. “What you need to do is drill new bypass tunnels. Go through the soft sandstone around and beneath the dam and line the tunnels with waterproof plates. It would be an expensive, difficult engineering feat. Nothing like this has ever been done before, but I’ve done a lot of thinking about it, and it will work. You can drain it.”

The astonished Ingebretsen asked Dominy to sign and date the napkin. “Nobody will believe this,” he said. Dominy signed.

Of course, it will take more than a souvenir napkin to return the nation’s great rivers to their full wildness and health. Too much of our economic infrastructure depends on those 75,000 dams for anyone to believe that large numbers of river-blockers, no matter how obsolete, will succumb to the blow of Bruce Babbitt’s hammer any time soon.

For one thing, Babbitt himself is hardly in a position to be the savior of the rivers. Swept up in the troubles of a lame-duck administration and his own nagging legal problems (last spring Attorney General Janet Reno appointed an independent counsel to look into Babbitt’s role in an alleged Indian casino-campaign finance imbroglio), this Interior secretary is not likely to fulfill his dream of bringing down a really big dam. But a like-minded successor, building on the momentum Babbitt has created, just might. It will take a committed and powerful president, a voice strong enough to sway public opinion, and an arm strong enough to twist others in Congress, but it could come to pass, with or without that Idaho farmer sitting on top of a Snake River dam with his 30-30.

To see what that free-flowing river might look like, I drove one afternoon upriver from Lewiston, beyond the reach of the Potlatch paper mill stink, to the only wild stretch of the Snake that a salmon can reach. The creep of evening shade had nearly overtaken Idaho; across the water, the rolling terrain of eastern Washington radiated with the last rays of the sun, and between them ran the border, black-gold and shifting. The tail end of the evening breeze carried the scent of mud mixed with the sweet tang of the river, which smelled like good lake water tastes. I sat and waited for the fish. This is where the big kings, the chinook, come in autumn, laying their eggs in the white granite sand. Swallows darted around me, chwee-chweeing and snatching tiny moths and nymphs that curlicued over the water.

Once we had fish but no power. Now we have power but no fish. We swapped fish for electricity and farmland, and for most folks that was a square deal. We got prosperous farms, cheap power, airplanes, and paychecks. We got power plants that didn’t smudge the sky or leave us with quarter-million-year radioactive sludge. We also got sluices with dead water for rivers.

The shadows reached halfway across the river, which turned back against itself near shore and then pulled apart in two rips before melting into the middle channel where the deep water glides, as if on a moving sidewalk. This was not a reservoir. The fish arrived at dusk, their bubbles and slaps, like the hands of infants in a tub, giving them away. Probably not salmon. More likely northern pike minnow, though maybe a young steelhead was out there.

On an impulse, I dunked my head into the river and had a look around. It was murky. I could see only as far as the ends of my fingers, which looked fuzzy and shockingly white, bloated like a drowned corpse. To tell the truth, I wouldn’t know the difference between that water and the slack water 20 miles away. It’s the sumac, the cheat grass, the hackberry trees, the fish in the river that I’m too blind to see — they can tell the difference.

Christians wash away sin in the baptismal river; Hindus sip the purifying waters of the Ganges. The idea of a river as a source of natural replenishment is so deeply ingrained in humankind that we don’t even think about it anymore. Maybe that’s the problem. Remember how the Nile’s floods delivered the water and silt that nourished the crops that allowed civilization to flourish? The Nile doesn’t flood any more. Egypt stopped that nonsense with the High Aswan Dam. The 9.5 million tons of sediment that fertilized the delta of the Nile every year now sink to the bottom of the Nasser Reservoir. The delta is being eaten away by the sea.

Maybe Glen Canyon Dam and the four Snake River dams won’t come out in my lifetime. But others will — small ones, and then bigger ones. And as more rivers return to life, we’ll take a new census of emancipated streams: We freed the Neuse, the Kennebec, the Allier, the Rogue, the Elwha, and even the Tuolumne. We freed the White Salmon and the Souradabscook, the Ocklawaha and the Genesee. They will be untidy and unpredictable, they will flood and recede, they will do what they were meant to do: run wild to the sea.

Bruce Barcott is the author of The Measure of a Mountain: Beauty and Terror on Mount Rainier.



Trending on Outside Online