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Children of the Dammed

The race to capture energy once spurred dam construction throughout the state—but with little knowledge of the dams’ environmental impact. Now the next generation has to weigh their harm with their benefits.

  • February 10, 2016
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  • 5 Questions
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  • By Jefferson Robbins

Humans shape their landscape, but what happens when we decide to put the landscape back more or less the way it was?

As retired fish biologist Dennis Dauble points out, we sometimes find we’re too used to the way we’ve shaped it.

Starting in the 1930s, humans lassoed the power potential of the Northwest by damming many of its mightiest rivers — the Columbia and its large tributaries foremost among them. Predictably, the method shut off passage for migrating fish, and vastly transformed the land both upriver and downstream.

Over time, as the ecological consequences became known, the scramble was on to remove some of the most damaging river blockades. But the projects were expensive, and the “people vs. fish” controversies that erupted over such proposals became political sinkholes.

Dauble’s presentation for the Humanities Washington Speakers Bureau ranges through biology, economics, politics, and engineering to paint a fuller picture of major dam removals in our state and around the region. The Elhwa River Dam breaching, for instance, took out a century-old structure to let the waterway run wild again into the Strait of Juan de Fuca. But it could never have happened without a lot of discussion, in Clallam County and beyond.

“I like to give a historic context for all this,” Dauble says. “And that’s what people like as much as anything — the history.”


Humanities Washington: When I first moved to this state in 2000, I saw bumper stickers that said “Save the Dams, Remove the Lockes.” What made dam removal such a politically charged topic?

Dennis Dauble: I think it strikes fear into people — mainly the economics of it. And for other people, it’s a culture thing. I won’t say it’s quite like taking away a commercial fisherman’s gill net, but it seems like for some people dams are a sacred thing — something they’re proud of in terms of the economic wellbeing of the region. That’s another reason I describe why dams are removed, and get into some detail on the economics of dams. I think some of the fears people have are driven by lack of knowledge about how things really work. I always get into things where people say, well, this dam is what killed the salmon, and I have to explain there’s a lot more issues going on than just this one. The four Lower Snake River dams were a very hot topic, and a lot of bumper stickers were out for that. So when you’re in an area where there’s been a lot of publicity or controversy about a particular project, that’s when I get the most interested audience showing up, and they show up because I think they want to hear my point of view.

Since we removed the Elwha Dam, for example, what have been the impacts?

I think what we’ve learned is that economically, it hasn’t crushed the region; and that from an environmental perspective, the things a lot of people hoped would come true have come true. But there’s also some unintended consequences that happen with these projects. People don’t really have a good idea of the sediment that’s released, what’s going to happen to it, and how long it’s going to take to subside. That’s probably one of the biggest unknowns — there’s sediment that gets trapped behind the project, and then when you release that, what does that mean? But the jury’s still out, because the removal process here in the West is still relatively new, so we don’t have a database that says it takes 20 years to do this, or it takes 50 years to do this. And that’s one of my concerns: The monitoring is pretty much done on a shoestring. For the dam operators to keep operating, often the licensing requirements are so restrictive that they decide they can’t monitor. The monitoring part of it would have to come from state fish and wildlife agencies, and private fisheries groups.

What are some of the notable dams that have been removed in the Northwest?

Condit, Elwha, and Glines Canyon are the best examples. There are small projects too — small irrigation dams that have been removed, like one in the Methow, for example. There’s actually a list of what I call some controversial projects, and these are kind of in limbo. The Tumwater Dam in the Wenatchee has come up for discussion, as has the Enloe Dam in the Okanogan. So there are small projects that are not generating power anymore, but taking them out is a big question, because once you take them out, nobody’s putting them back in. There’s essentially no new hydropower projects initiated in the last twenty years. What’s been done instead is to make existing projects more efficient.

Is it just too expensive to remove dams when the need to do so is identified?

It all comes down to the size of the project. One is coming up in Oregon right now, the Klamath River dams. They have four large dams — not as large as those on the Lower Snake — and they estimate it’ll be close to $300 million to remove those. For a small dam, like let’s say an irrigation diversion project, maybe a tributary of the Wenatchee River, that might only cost $200,000 or less. There’s examples where local conservation groups can get a grant and work with someone like the Bureau of Reclamation to remove these small projects — just taking a backhoe, busting up the concrete and hauling the bits off, and at least providing fish passage again.

How do fish adjust when a barrier gets removed?

Fish respond almost immediately by moving upstream and colonizing waters that weren’t accessible to them before. We’re told fish will go back to the same rock they hatched from, and that’s not necessarily true. Often if fish can’t get to where they originate from, they will migrate to another tributary. That’s a great survival adaptation. The downstream effect, the sediment deposition, that creates some issues in some streams that I’m familiar with, and the removal of that sediment and the establishment of a natural flow regime is gonna take some time.

Dennis Dauble is traveling throughout the state as part of Humanities Washington’s Speakers Bureau program. Check out our events calendar for upcoming talks.

1 thought on “Children of the Dammed”

  1. Arlen Morris says:

    Hi Dennis. so glad I got to read a review of your program on the dams. I was sick and held hostage on California when you spoke on Harstine. This article very balanced and cautious, but at least now I know what the downsize is of dam removal. It was never very well promoted in the news supporting removal. Hope you are busy and get a chance to be on the holding end of a fishing rod more on than off. So glad that Humanities made this article and review available. Arlen Morris, Harstine Island

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