Thursday, January 04, 2007

Future of Dams

Last week was a slow one around the office so my son Aki and I (along with Elmo) headed south for a tour of rivers and dams in the Rogue, Klamath, and Feather River watersheds.

Aki and Elmo at the Iron Gate Hatchery on the Klamath River.

While dams provide undeniable benefits to society in the form of water supplies, energy, and transportation, it all comes at a cost to the world's freshwater ecocsystems. Colleagues in Sweeden recently published a study in the journal Science titled "Fragmentation and Flow Regulation of the World's Large River Systems" documenting that more than half of the world's large rivers are impacted by dams. The cumulative impact of the world's reservoirs that store 6500 km3 of water (equivalent to 15 percent of the world's annual freshwater runoff) is significant because dams affect sediment transport, elements of natural flow regimes including seasonal timing and magnitude of flows, and fish migration and overall habitat connectivity.

Over the past decade we have begun to take a more critical look at the benefits of dams relative to the costs. Seven dams in the Pacific Northwest are currently scheduled for removal over the next five years. In an editorial published in the New Year's Day issue of the Seattle Times, the paper noted that "license renewals, operating expenses and other business liabilities all played a role in making the abandonment of the seven dams a logical conclusion."

Savage Rapids Dam on the Rogue River.

Our first stop was to the Savage Rapids Dam on the Rogue River. The Rogue River was one of the nation's first federally designated Wild and Scenic Rivers and earlier this year I had an opportunity to spend four days on the river where it flows through a remote river canyon on its way to the Pacific. It was during the annual salmon migration and we had a great time watching the powerful fish work their way upstream. Many of these fish ultimately encounter Savage Rapids Dam, an outdated irrigation dam about 5 miles upstream of Grants Pass. This dam is 40 feet tall and although it has a fish ladder it does not meet current standards for fish passage. An economic analyis of the project demonstrated that it would cost more to bring the dam up to current standards than to just remove it and replace the dam with pumps to meet irrigation needs. That process to install the pumps is now underway and the dam is currently scheduled to be removed by 2009. The agreement that made this possible came about through the joint efforts of irrigators who have depended on the dam for over 80 years and conservation groups who have long recognized the opportunity for restoration.

Gold Ray Dam on the Rogue River.

Gold Ray Dam is a former hydropower project on the Rogue River just upstream of the town of Gold Hill. It is thus upstream of Savage Rapids Dam. Construction of the first dam began in 1902 and it started producing power in 1904. When the powerplant was decommissioned in 1972 the generation capacity was 1250 kw. While the dam no longer produces hydropower it continues to negatively impact fish. It has a fish ladder but it is not maintained and flows on the river are typically higher than the design flow for the ladder.

North Fork Dam on the Rogue River.

Continuing up the Rogue River you pass by a massive Army Corps of Engineers flood control project before you encounter this active hydropower project on the river. PacifiCorp has recently applied for a new license to operate this project which takes flow from several different tributaries, pipes it thorugh a network of canals, and then sends it through turbines before returning the flow to the river. In my view PacifiCorp got off easy on this project as the environmental review from federal regulators calls for a relatively modest suite of mitigation measures. I've been working to make sure that the public can get access to the river and PacifiCorp has vigorously protested even that small request. The privledge for a private company to utilize a public waterway for power production comes with a certain responsibility to meet the broader public interest. In fact the Federal Power Act specifically states that a hydropower power project must be part of a "comprehensive plan" for development of the waterway that includes non-power uses of the river.

Avenue of the Giant Boulders.

The Avenue of the Giant Boulders is normally dewatered as the river is diverted around this high-gradient reach for hydropower production but on the day of our visit flows exceeded the capacity of the powerhouse and the "excess" flowed down the river. It's an impressive and what's even more amazing is that it has been run by kayak.

Iron Gate Dam on the Klamath.

We left the Rogue watershed as we climbed up over the mountains headed south on I-5 and dropped into the Klamath watershed. Iron Gate dam is the first dam on the Klamath River as salmon make their way upstream from the Pacific Ocean. It's also ground zero for the controversy surrounding this hydropower project which has had a devastating impact on what was once one of the most productive salmon runs on the west coast. This is one of those projects where one has to seriously question whether the modest power that is produced provides a benefit that exceeds the extreme cost to the resource. Federal regulators got an earful last month from thousands of members of the public who protested issuance of a new license for the series of dams that make up this project. Settlement discussions over dam removal continue and we could see the governors of Oregon and California step into the mix here soon. I worked with colleagues last month to draft comments on this project asking for a more comprehensive review of alternatives. The public clearly wants to explore removal of this project and federal regulators have a responsibility to conduct a complete review so the public can make an informed decision. At this point it does appear that bringing the dams up to current standards would be more expensive than just removing the project and in other cases this has lead to an economic decision for dam removal. It could happen here too.

The Chinook salmon hatchery at the base of Iron Gate Dam.

With the dams blocking access to habitat upstream, fish are now raised in concrete raceways below the dam. While this was acceptable 50 years ago, current science documents that this approach is generally not effective for long-term population sustainability and the law now requires provisions for fish passage.

Oroville Dam on the Feather River.

Continuing on down to California we went to visit the Oroville Project on the Feather River to stay with my colleague Dave for a couple nights. At 770 feet this is the tallest dam in the US and it can best be described as one giant pile of dirt. It is all part of the California State Water Project providing drinking and irrigation water for Central and Southern California. Hydroelectricity for the dam is used to power pumps that send the water south.

Fish barrier dam on the Feather River.

To keep fish from making their way up to the main dams on the Feather River the fish diversion dam directs them into the hatchery. While a number of river conservation organizations signed the settlement agreement for a future license for this project, a new set of mitigation requirements will help us achieve an appropriate balance between power and ecological values of the river. The dams come at a cost to the overall health of the river but we accept that in light of the benefits they provide to the community. In the incredible foresight of the Federal Power Act, the license for this project will last for a predetermined term. After a half century we will be provided with another opportunity to critically evaluate the project.

Butte Creek

A highlight of our trip was a day on the water and Aki's first winter paddling trip on class II Butte Creek. Restoration of Butte Creek has been a success worth celebrating. Following removal of a series of irrigation dams salmon quickly returned to the river. Bruce Babbitt who led the charge on a nationwide dam busters tour wrote of how we should critically evaluate the future of dams on places like Butte Creek and the questions we need to ask:

"Is this dam still serving its purpose? Do the benefits justify the destruction of fish runs and drying up of rivers? Can't we find a better balance between our needs and the needs of the river? ... No, we're not taking aim at all dams. But we should strike a balance between the needs of the river and the demands of river users."

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