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Sierra Magazine
Lay of the Land

Down Come the Dams | Yosemite Turns a Corner | The Water's Fine | What's in a Name?

Down Come the Dams

Rethinking progress and letting rivers run free

When the Sierra Club proposed draining Lake Powell last year, critics called it lunacy. How dare we suggest shutting down Glen Canyon Dam, one of the largest public-works projects in the United States, to let a river run wild? But the assumption that dams are permanent fixtures has already been breached: around the country they're falling like dominoes in the name of river restoration.

In December state and federal officials removed the Quaker Neck Dam on the Neuse River in North Carolina, making it the first large dam in the nation to be dismantled in an effort to rescue fisheries and renew a river. Tearing down the dam opened up 75 miles of the stream and 900 miles of tributaries to striped bass, American shad, hickory shad, and short-nosed sturgeon, which have been unable to spawn in the Neuse for 45 years.

A month earlier, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) ordered the removal of the Edwards Dam on Maine's Kennebec River to restore fish habitats. That move will return salmon, shad, and other fish species to at least 15 miles of the Kennebec. The commission decided that the small amount of electricity generated by the dam did not justify the resulting environmental damage.

In November the Western Canal Dam on a tributary of California's Sacramento River was demolished to let threatened chinook salmon run free for the first time since the 1920s. Last year a local irrigation district voted to support the removal of the Savage Rapids Dam on Oregon's Rogue River, which would save $4 million in renovation costs and make life easier for the river's salmon and steelhead. The Newport No. 11 dam on the Clyde River in Vermont was removed in 1996, allowing salmon to return upstream for the first time in 40 years. And in this year's State of the Union address, President Clinton proposed spending $52 million to tear down the Glines Canyon Dam on the Elwha River in Washington state. That's in addition to an existing proposal to remove the Elwha Dam farther downstream in an effort to revive wild salmon runs.

Why all the sledgehammers? Some 550 dams will come up for relicensing by FERC in the next 15 years, and since 1986 the agency has been required to weigh a dam's impact on wildlife and recreation against its economic benefits. Not surprisingly, studies show that dams devastate fish runs and that the best way to resuscitate them is to remove the dams.

At the same time, energy deregulation and low electricity prices caused in part by a glut of natural gas, more efficient natural-gas turbines, and conservation have turned many dams into economic dinosaurs. In the Pacific Northwest, privately owned gas-fired turbines sell electricity at about the same price as dams operated by the federally subsidized Bonneville Power Administration.

Although large federal dams such as those on the Columbia aren't regulated by FERC, the utility of some of them is also being questioned. In the Columbia River basin, where salmon-recovery efforts have failed, policy makers are debating breaching dams on the Snake River for the first time. The river's salmon must contend with eight hydropower dams as they head downstream; along the way, up to 99 percent of smolts perish.

Lending credence to a proposal championed by the Sierra Club and other environmental groups, the editorial board of the Idaho Statesman in Boise concluded last year that the Northwest would realize a net economic benefit of $183 million a year by unplugging four dams on the lower Snake. But no one expects this effort to be as easy as toppling a 15-foot-high dam in Maine: while they're marginal contributors to the Northwest's power grid, the four Snake River dams enable barges to reach Lewiston, Idaho, 400 miles from the sea. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and National Marine Fisheries Service are expected to finish reviews of the proposal in late 1999.

Dams must now prove their worth against that of healthy rivers and fisheries—and they aren't measuring up. While building dams has always demonstrated our ability to control nature, dismantling them represents our capacity to live in harmony with it. —Reed McManus


Yosemite Turns a Corner

A year after the flood, new hope for peace in the valley

In January 1997, in the wake of pounding rains and balmy temperatures that sent the heavy snowpack sluicing down the Sierra, the normally placid Merced River jumped its banks and took out with a vengeance across Yosemite Valley. The prodigious flood caused roughly $180 million in damages in Yosemite National Park, laying waste to roads, power and sewer lines, and lodgings for employees and visitors.

But for the closing of the park gates, John Muir would have loved it. Nature had snatched the valley back from the cars and concessionaires, and returned a seven-mile stretch of God's country to a muddy semblance of the jewel Muir fought so hard to protect. The devastation was also a gift of sorts to the National Park Service, a second chance to fulfill its 81-year-old congressional mandate to "conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life" under its care and "leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations."

Visionary rhetoric notwithstanding, visitors have increasingly "enjoyed" treasures like Half Dome and Bridalveil Falls while stalled in traffic. Jimmy Carter was still president when the Park Service identified auto congestion in the valley as "the single greatest threat" to the Yosemite experience, and set a new course for the park in its 1980 General Management Plan. The plan committed the agency to reduce crowding and traffic, restore the valley's natural beauty, remove nonessential buildings and facilities, and relocate accommodations away from environmentally sensitive areas.

But the next 17 years saw that bright promise overrun by the park's growing allure as a drive-through tourist attraction. By 1997 the number of visitors to Yosemite had doubled to over 4 million a year, and at peak periods more than 6,000 cars might be inching along in bumper-to-bumper traffic. There had been no real movement toward other key goals of the 1980 plan, either: gridlock seemed the watchword.

And then came the deluge. By damaging or destroying man-made infrastructure, the raging river forced park planners back to the drawing board, giving them the chance to think about where and how to rebuild. Just as important, the flood damage inspired Congress to earmark almost $200 million to get Yosemite back into shape, finally making it possible to take action on the General Management Plan.

Central to the agency's blueprint for the postdiluvian Yosemite is the phased removal of private automobiles, starting by requiring reservations for parking inside the valley boundaries and eliminating day-use auto touring. Eventually, planners hope, all visitors will leave their cars in nearby towns and ride buses to get in and around the valley.

The Park Service proposal, which is not yet final, hinges partly on development of a regional transportation system to get visitors from gateway communities into the valley. Unless there's substantial progress toward such a system by 2001—a prospect many view as unlikely—agency planners say they'll build a "temporary" parking lot within Yosemite Valley, an idea that gives many Yosemite lovers fits. Especially disturbing is the designated site at Taft Toe, a relatively pristine area at the southwestern edge of the valley.

Besides a reduction in car fumes, other positive changes are on the valley's horizon. The Park Service is expected to remove concessionaire and agency administrative offices, restore to natural condition several parking lots, reduce the density of campgrounds and relocate them away from the floodplain, and consolidate the visitor center and the park store, which would become the drop-off point for shuttle-bus passengers.

Nonetheless, much of Yosemite's future has yet to be spelled out. Conservationists want to see such improvements as an increased emphasis on nature appreciation, a ban on campfires in the valley, and increased protection for the park's ubiquitous black bears. Many activists are concerned that the Park Service could still repeat the mistakes of the past.

"As visitation goes up—and more and more people are going to national parks—there's more and more pressure to provide services," observes Linda Wallace, chair of the Sierra Club's Yosemite Committee. "But a crucial part of the Park Service's mission is to protect the natural environment. We need to keep urging them to move in that direction." —B.J. Bergman


The Water's Fine (unless you drink or swim)

In Kansas 97 percent of the rivers and streams are unsafe for swimming or drinking. Common contaminants include ammonia, a by-product of antiquated sewage-treatment plants, and the weed killer atrazine, the most widely used herbicide in the state. An industry-heavy commission appointed by Governor Bill Graves (R) came up with a pragmatic solution—change state regulations to allow more pollution. More waste could be dumped directly into rivers, "saving industry and cities money," notes the Wichita Eagle. "The theory is that fish and people will have enough sense to stay away from those areas." The commission also proposed that the state weaken its standards for fecal coliform bacteria.

The Sierra Club is suing Kansas to force it to clean up its act, but perhaps what the state really needs is a 12-step program. First step: acknowledge that you have a problem. —Paul Rauber


What's in a Name?

It's a good thing they didn't call Yellowstone the "National Cyanide Heap-Leach Gold Mine Zone," or the Kaiparowits Plateau the "Utah Open-Pit Coal Mine Sanctuary." Because look what's happening to the arctic wilderness in northern Alaska that had the misfortune of being designated the "National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska." The idea in the 1920s was to preserve an emergency supply of oil for the U.S. Navy. The idea now is that if ARCO and British Petroleum would like to increase their profits by shipping more oil to Japan, they can drill it there.

Oil is currently selling for about $15 a barrel—roughly the going price in 1973. With gasoline cheaper than bottled water, not even the most fevered Wall Street Journal columnist is asserting an oil shortage, and the Navy has all the oil it can use. Nevertheless, the Bureau of Land Management is considering opening up a 4.6-million-acre stretch of the arctic coastal plain to intensive oil drilling. This spring the agency solicited public comment on how much drilling to allow, with the official alternatives ranging, in essence, from "none at the moment" to "drill it dry." Not represented was what this remote wilderness really needs: permanent protection for its most sensitive areas, the Colville River and Teshekpuk Lake "special areas," which are crucial to the survival of the 25,000-strong western arctic caribou herd.—P.R.


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