A River Will Run Through It

February 23rd, 2010 by David Leland Hyde Leave a reply »

Savage Rapids Dam on the Rogue River, during removal looking upstream. Courtesy of the Bureau of Reclamation.

Grants Pass, Oregon–The momentum continues for removing dams and freeing America’s wild rivers. Dams on the Rogue River and Klamath River in Oregon, Hetch Hetchy Valley on the Tuolumne River in Yosemite National Park, California and Glen Canyon Dam on the Colorado River in Arizona and Utah, are just a few of the targets of dam demolition campaigns.

Nearly 90 years ago the Grants Pass Irrigation District built Savage Rapids Dam on the Rogue River to provide irrigation water for nearby farms. Farmers benefited; fish did not. Fish ladders were installed for coho and chinook salmon and steelhead, but they did not change the dams status as the biggest fish killer on the river.

A Portland, Oregon organization known as Waterwatch, spearheaded campaigns to remove Savage Rapids Dam, Gold Ray Dam, Gold Hill Dam, Elk Creek Dam and Lost Creek Dam from the Rogue River, historically Oregon’s second largest salmon spawning watershed behind the Klamath River. Projects are also in motion on the Klamath River that will eventually set the mighty river completely free, supported by the Yurok, Karuk and Klamath Tribes.

River ecosystems are the basis of all life on Earth. Not only do dams kill fish, they destroy other native species, increase the negative effects of drought as opposed to alleviating these as often publicized, increase the water’s salinity, encourage non-native trees and shrubs, remove sandbars, marshes and other habitat for small land and marine animals and waterfowl, waste more water than they save, especially in arid climates, and often lose money as they fail to produce the levels of hydro-power projected. Technologies have recently been refined that allow for hydro-power to be generated without damming rivers; by merely diverting a portion of the flow through large pipes into turbines.

Savage Rapids Dam on the Rogue River, former site immediately after breaching, looking downstream. Courtesy of the Bureau of Reclamation.

Waterwatch staff fearlessly decided three years ago that Savage Rapids Dam must go. Demolition began in October 2006, the dam was completely breached in October 2009 and one of the largest dam removal projects in the country is now almost complete. To get the project going, Waterwatch representatives argued about water rights, rallied fishermen and kayakers, and they got in touch with Earthjustice attorneys Mike Sherwood and Claudia Polsky. Earthjustice, a spinoff from the Sierra Club, started as the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund in 1971, and changed its name to Earthjustice in 1997. Mike Sherwood and Claudia Polsky recently succeeded in gaining Endangered Species Act protection for the coho salmon. They were thereby able to charge the dam operators with illegally harming a protected species. Eventually all parties agreed that the dam would come out and be replaced with pumps that divert water straight out of the river for farms, with no impoundment necessary.

American Rivers, based in Washington DC, “has led a national effort to restore rivers through the demolition of dams that no longer make sense,” said American Rivers promotional materials. “The organization’s expertise and advocacy have contributed to the removal of more than 200 dams nationwide.” American Rivers released a statement last month that in 2009, 58 dams in 16 states, were taken down.

“In the 1950s and ’60s, a dam went up in the United States every six minutes to generate electricity, provide irrigation water and protect against floods,” wrote Matthew Preusch in the New York Times. “As a result, there are an estimated 75,000 aging dams blocking rivers large and small today.”

Hetch Hetchy Valley, Field of Stumps, Yosemite National Park, 1955, by Philip Hyde, who discovered that the water level was very low and drove straight to the Sierra Club Headquarters in San Francisco to tell David Brower. David Brower dropped everything, grabbed his movie camera and they rushed back to photograph and film. To this day Restore Hetch Hetchy uses the David Brower film and Philip Hyde photographs in their campaign to restore this paradise lost. The Sacramento Bee won a Pulitzer Prize for their series covering the Hetch Hetchy debate. Philip Hyde's widely published photograph appeared on PBS Television's Jim Lehrer News Hour in a segment about the controversy in 2008.

A California group, Restore Hetch Hetchy, continues to fight for the restoral of Yosemite National Park’s Hetch Hetchy Valley. Hetch Hetchy is a sister valley to Yosemite and at one time approached Yosemite Valley’s beauty, with waterfalls, rich grasslands and wildlife, verdant forests, and the Tuolumne River lazily winding through the center. However, after the 1906 Earthquake, San Francisco proposed damming Hetch Hetchy Valley to form a reliable water supply. John Muir, founder of the Sierra Club, led the opposition to the dam. Many say he died of a broken heart after the O’Shaughnessy Dam flooded Hetch Hetchy Valley. Gifford Pinchot, leader of the U. S. Forest Service, who many now claim was an environmentalist, was one of the leading proponents of the dam. Ironically, modern studies show that San Francisco could obtain the same amount of water with less expense downstream.

Hetch Hetchy was the first and last time any agency built a dam on National Park lands. A coalition of environmental organizations, led by the Sierra Club and David Brower, successfully defeated two dams proposed in Dinosaur National Monument in the early 1950s and lobbied Congress to pass legislation that strengthened laws preventing such development in the National Park System. However, to save Dinosaur National Monument, the coalition of environmental groups had to endorse the damming of Glen Canyon as a better alternative. Few people had ever seen Glen Canyon. By the time wilderness proponents Eliot Porter, Philip Hyde and other Sierra Club landscape photographers published spectacular images lamenting the loss of one of the world’s most beautiful wild places in the early 1960s, it was too late. The Bureau of Reclamation had already closed the gates on the Glen Canyon Dam and Lake Powell had begun to consume the canyon wilderness.

Glen Canyon Dam and "Lake" Powell, Utah and Arizona. Creatas Photos Royalty Free Photograph.

Today, the granddaddy dam removal proposal of them all is to redeem Glen Canyon and make it a National Park. The Glen Canyon Institute has piloted this endeavor since 1996 with support from David Brower, Philip Hyde and currently Philip Hyde Photography. Read Philip Hyde’s expression of grief over the loss of Glen Canyon and part of the Escalante Wilderness in the blog post, “Glen Canyon Lament By Philip Hyde.” “Lake” Powell, or Powell Reservoir to be more accurate, has drawn down over 100 feet in droughts several times and reached an all-time low in 2003. The reservoir was only completely full for a short time in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The sandstone bedrock leaks more water than the net storage for irrigation and the “lake” surface evaporates more water every year than the “lake” holds. Glen Canyon Dam has prevented the Colorado River from the periodic flooding that forms sandbars vital to the survival and propagation of plant and wildlife species downriver in Grand Canyon National Park. In contrast, small daily fluctuations due to power generating releases have carried away most of the sandbars and threatened endangered species, disrupting the natural ecosystem of Grand Canyon National Park. Reportedly, the soft sandstone that Glen Canyon Dam is anchored in, nearly failed in 1983 after a flood on the upper Colorado River. Glen Canyon Dam is aging and its lifespan is estimated at as little as 100 years by dam removal proponents and 500-700 years by the Bureau of Reclamation. The heavy-laden Colorado River and San Juan River are rapidly filling Powell Reservoir with silt that decreases electricity generation and can interfere with Glen Canyon Dam’s proper operation. A breach of Glen Canyon Dam could cause a floodwave that would top the downstream Hoover Dam by as much as 230 feet, resulting in a potential megatsunami disaster downstream. Much more on Glen Canyon Dam, “Lake” Powell, Edward Abbey and the The Monkey Wrench Gang in future blog posts. See also the blog posts, “Glen Canyon Lament 1 By Philip Hyde,” “Glen Canyon Portfolio 1” and “Glen Canyon Portfolio 2.” For more about who Edward Abbey was read the blog post, “Who Was Edward Abbey?

References:
Earthjustice Press Release.
The Portland Orgonian, Oregon Environmental News, “The Rogue River Dam Removal Moves Forward”
Waterwatch
American Rivers
New York Times, “Dams Go Down, Uncorking Rivers For Kayakers”
Restore Hetch Hetchy
Glen Canyon Institute
Scientists Struggle to Preserve Grand Canyon Wildlife

Be Sociable, Share!
Advertisement

6 comments

  1. Richard Wong says:

    Great post, David. I personally would love to see more of the major rivers restored to their natural state. From what I understand, is that the Smith River is the only major undammed river in California. That seems crazy to me when you think of the environmental impact that has been caused by the dams.

  2. Thank you Richard. People are only now coming around to understanding the many adverse implications of dams on rivers. In the hayday of the Bureau of Wreck the Nation, dams were seen as a great way to boost local economies and produce “clean” energy. Now we are learning that dams are very “dirty” in many ways, including the fact that reservoirs emit greenhouse gases.

Leave a Reply