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 fisheriesand
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
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
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
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
2001a prospect many view as unlikelyagency 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 upand more and more people are going to national
parksthere'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 solutionchange 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 barrelroughly 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.