The Long Road to River Recovery

Elizabeth Brink

Yurok elder Jimmy Jones was born after the Klamath dams changed his tribe’s way of life. His grandchildren will hopefully see the removal of the dams and the restoration of salmon.
Yurok elder Jimmy Jones was born after the Klamath dams changed his tribe’s way of life. His grandchildren will hopefully see the removal of the dams and the restoration of salmon.
© Bob Dawson

the most iconic dam-removal campaigns in the western United States are advancing, slowly but surely. The lesson from these efforts is clear – the road to restoration is a long one. Still, many believe it’s worth the wait, as the benefits are so great. In nearly all cases where dams have been removed, recovery of ecosystems and fisheries has been remarkably rapid.

There are more than 75,000 dams blocking US rivers (and many thousands more small dams), and 85% of them are past their 50-year life expectancy. While between 50 and 100 small dams are being removed from US rivers every year, larger projects are rare, and the lead-up to removal can take decades. In the process, the science of dam removal is advancing leaps and bounds.

Here is an update on some of the key big-dam decommissioning efforts now underway.

The Big One

The Elwha River, which runs through Washington’s Olympic National Park, once supported legendary runs of at least six species of Pacific salmon and steelhead. Dismantling the Elwha and Glines Canyon dams, which will start in a few months, will allow the river to flow freely for the first time in 100 years, and restore more than 70 miles of protected habitat in the river basin. The 64-meter-tall (210 feet) Glines Canyon Dam will be the biggest dam ever removed in the US.

In addition to their impact on fisheries and tribal rights, the dams do not generate enough power to justify their costs. What power they do generate can be replaced by alternative energy sources that are relatively inexpensive to dam owner Crown Zellerbach Corporation, and considerably less expensive for the Lower Elwha Klallam tribe, who have involuntarily subsidized Crown by bearing the environmental costs of its dams for too long.

The decision to take out the two dams, both of which in Olympic National Park, was taken 25 years ago. And that was after 25 more years of campaigning in earnest by the Lower Elwha Klallam Nation and conservation organizations. The tribe wanted the dams taken out since they were built nearly a century ago.

Persistence and patience are finally paying off. As a first step, the Glines Dam reservoir was lowered about 1.5 feet per day at the end of April until it was six feet lower than normal.

One of the major challenges in removing these two dams is dealing with nearly 18 million cubic yards of sediment trapped behind the two reservoirs –the equivalent of a million dump truck loads. The quantity is so great that scientists have studied the debris flows from the 1980 eruption of Washington’s Mount St. Helens volcano to gauge how aquatic life might react to such a large sediment flow washing downstream. Both dams will be notched in increments to allow sediment to flow out slowly, and keep it from choking the river and the salmon they are trying to save. The sediments will help rebuild the wetlands, beaches, and the river’s estuary.

Removal of the dam walls will start in September 2011 and is expected to take three years. Scientists expect the majority of the silt to reach the ocean in 3-5 years, and say the restored, free-flowing river could sustain as many as 400,000 salmon and steelhead within 30 years.

Tribes and Farmers Unite

Another slow but steady dam-removal process is taking baby steps forward in Northern California. After more than 10 years of negotiations, agreements to remove four dams on the Klamath River were signed in February 2010 by over 45 stakeholder groups, including three affected tribes, irrigators, fishermen, conservation groups, dam owner PacifiCorp, as well as numerous politicians and agencies at the national and state levels. The California Public Utilities Commission endorsed removing the hydroelectric dams on the May 5.

The Klamath, Karuk, Yurok, and Hoopa tribes in the Klamath Basin are deeply connected to the land. Today these tribes and other nature-dependent people in the rural region are suffering from loss of land, loss of what was once one of the most productive salmon rivers in the country, and the loss of their traditional diet, which affects many cultural practices.

Mirroring the Elwha story, the primary goal of Klamath restoration efforts is to restore the river, which runs in Northern California and Oregon, and the threatened species the river supports. While fisheries restoration is the banner issue, what really drives this costly and contentious process forward is the fact that the four dams slated for removal are too expensive to maintain, and don’t provide enough hydropower to justify their price tags.

Commercial salmon fishing on the Klamath River has been increasingly troubled due to greatly reduced and changed flows out of the dams (especially in drought years), and changing conditions in the ocean as well, The result was a complete closure of the fishery in 2008 and 2009, and an extremely limited season in 2010.

"The basin is basically cut in half," says Karuk Tribe Vice Chairman Leaf Hillman. "To restore runs, we need that untapped productivity that fish aren't able to access anymore – all that spawning habitat" beyond the dams.

The Secretary of the Interior will determine by March 2012 whether dam removal will go forward, based on the completion of scientific studies and environmental reviews. At that point, the secretary would authorize transfer to a dam removal entity, likely to be the federal government. Federal legislation is also needed to authorize and fund key elements of the agreements including fish restoration projects, measures to achieve the water balance in the agreements, and programs to help communities in the basin. Removal of the dams is projected to begin in 2020.

Reoperation and Recovery

Restoring rivers does not always require removing dams. Reoperating and changing existing schemes can allow rivers to once again perform many of their natural functions.

In 1984 California’s Trinity River Basin Fish and Wildlife Management Act was signed, authorizing the Secretary of the Interior to develop and implement a management program to restore the fish and wildlife populations in the Trinity River Basin to levels which existed prior to construction of the Trinity and Lewiston dams.

In May, flows down the Trinity River hit their second highest level since two dams were constructed 50 years ago. The Bureau of Reclamation released 11,400 cubic feet of water per second from Lewiston Dam. The high water is being released to flush the river as part of an ongoing restoration, said Jennifer Faler, acting executive director for the Trinity River Restoration Program.

The rush of water will move the gravel and reshape the river, mimicking the ebb and flow of nature. While the flows are big now, the river used to see flows around 11,000 cfs every year and a half.

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