When Bruce Babbitt lifts a sledge hammer and takes a ceremonial whack at the Jackson Street Dam on Bear Creek here in southern Oregon this week, he will be busting up more than concrete. The secretary of the Interior will be breaking with years of tradition in symbolizing a new official attitude toward thousands of dams around the country.
Until fairly recently, dams in the United States were universally seen as a good thing. Some 75,000 of them, many dating back to the 19th century, provided hydropower, irrigation, flood control, transportation, and recreation. But today, questions about their impact on nature are being raised, and there's an effort to return many rivers to a free-flowing state by removing or breaching dams. (Breaching means removing the earthen portion of a dam while leaving the concrete.)
"Many dams are still useful, but others are clearly obsolete," says Secretary Babbitt. "Often they were built with no consideration of the environmental costs." The dam here in downtown Medford, Ore. (and another in Chico, Calif., also being highlighted this week) were major impediments to Pacific salmon returning to spawn. Other dams destroy wildlife habitat or degrade water quality.
But deciding which dams do more harm than good is not as simple as swinging a hammer.
Backing for government-subsidized hydropower and irrigation projects is as solid as the Grand Coulee and the Bonneville, oldest of the eight major dams in the Columbia River basin. And from local irrigation districts to the US Senate, it's become a political issue.
It's a major point of contention in the race to succeed retiring Idaho Gov. Phil Batt (R). Democratic candidate Robert Huntley, a former state Supreme Court justice, supports breaching the four major dams on the lower Snake River in Washington.
Mr. Huntley calls the dams "impediments to prosperity," even though breaching them would cut off Lewiston, Idaho - a major port - from full access to the Pacific Ocean. US Senator Dirk Kempthorne, the Republican gubernatorial candidate in Idaho, says modifying the dams is enough to revive the populations of migrating salmon now plunging toward extinction.
US Sen. Slade Gorton (R) of Washington says he "can't begin to imagine the economic damage if those dams are removed," adding that "it won't happen on my watch." Senator Gorton has attached a rider to the Interior Department's appropriations bill that would ban any changes in public or private dam operation throughout the Columbia River without congressional approval - even changes required under the Endangered Species Act.
WHILE many strong special interests - from the aluminum industry to corporate farms to shipping businesses - are fighting to preserve dams, others (including some traditional dam supporters) now take a different view.
Earlier this year, the Idaho Fish and Game Commission agreed that the "natural river option" would be the best way to achieve salmon recovery. After investigating the subject in detail, The Idaho Statesman, the state's major newspaper, editorialized in favor of breaching the dams. Even the US Army Corps of Engineers, which built many of the dams in the region, is engaged in a year-long study that could lead to breaching the four major dams on the lower Snake River.
Although the issue is tied up in budgetary maneuvering, Congress already has approved the destruction of two dams on the Elwha River on the Olympic Peninsula of Washington State.
But the issue is far from limited to the Pacific Northwest.
The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), which licenses approximately 1,800 hydropower dams around the country, is taking a hard look at older dams now up for license renewal.
Last year, the commission ordered the dismantling of the Edwards Dam on the Kennebec River in Maine. It was the first time the government denied a license-renewal application, but it won't be the last. More than 500 other dams around the country are up for license renewal.
No one is sure what breaching or destroying dams would cost.
Two 1996 studies concluded that breaching the major Snake River dams would be the best option for fish recovery - but the most costly. The Columbia River Alliance (which represents the shipping, agriculture, and timber industries) says it would cost the regional economy as much as $500 million a year.
But another study commissioned by the Oregon Natural Resources Council said it would save $87 million a year once migrating fish stocks had recovered. While many special interests and local officials will continue to fight dam removal, others support the effort. Here in Medford, removal of the Jackson Street Dam on Bear Creek is seen as the key to a downtown urban-renewal effort meant to bolster tourism.