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Dams are not Forever

Remarks of Bruce Babbitt
Secretary, U.S. Department of the Interior

Ecological Society of America Annual Meeting
August 4, 1998
Baltimore, Maryland

In keeping with the theme of this year's conference, I would like to briefly revisit some aquatic ecosystems I have toured since since we last met. Usually my trips to rivers involve a canoe and paddle, or flyfishing rod and reel. More recently I arrive with sledgehammer in hand, to celebrate destruction of dams.

I suspect this breaks with tradition. Six decades ago, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and his Interior Secretary Harold Ickes toured the country to dedicate dams,new dams, powerful dams, including four of the largest dams in the history of civilization. They built dams for barge traffic, for electricity, for irrigation, for drinking water, for flood control. For most of this century, politicians have eagerly rushed in, amidst cheering crowds, to claim credit for the construction of 75,000 dams all across America. Think about that number. That means we have been building, on average, one large dam a day, every

single day, since the Declaration of Independence. Many of these dams have became monuments, expected to last forever.

You could say forever just got a lot shorte

Starting last June 17: I hoisted a sledgehammer to mark the removal of four dams, opening 160 miles of the Menominee River flowing between Wisconsin and Michigan.

September 23: I visited the Olympic Peninsula to see two Elwha River dams which the Administration plans to remove to restoreone of the fabled chinook salmon runs of the river.

December 17: I took my sledgehammer to punch open the 55 year old, 260-foot Quaker Neck Dam on the Neuse River, opening 925 miles of fish spawning habitat.

May 26: Beside the Kennebec River, in the heart of Augusta, Maine, I signed documents clearing the way for the removal of the 160-year-old 917-foot Edwards Hydro Dam.

July 14: On Butte Creek, in the heart of California's agricultural Central Valley, I took the first crack at breaking up McPherrin Dam to restore chinook slamon in that Sacramento river tributary.

July 15: One day later, in downtown Medford, Oregon, I unpacked the sledgehammer to breach Bear Creek dam, the first dam removed in the Pacific Northwest, for coho salmon.

Every stop on this dam-busting tour attracts enormous local, regional and national attention. In fact, a lot more attention than we earned with our paddle and canoe during the National Heritage Tours in 1995 and 1996. Even more than we got with our flyrod during the rare native fishing tours last year.

So what is it about the clang of sledgehammer on concrete that evokes such a response?

I believe that huge public interest reflects a deep, widespread understanding that America overshot the mark in our dam building frenzy. In the Nineteenth Century, construction of the Erie Canal triggered a spasm of canal building that went on and on, beyond any realistic

expectation of economic return. Having a canal became the symbol of a progressive community. Everyone just had to have one, irrespective of its utility.

In this century, dam building has moved on a similar trajectory -- dams that were clearly justified for their economic value gradually gave way to projects built with excessive taxpayer subsidies, then justified by dubious cost/benefit projections.

The public is now learning that we have paid a steadily accumulating price for these projects in the form of: fish spawning runs destroyed, downstream rivers altered by changes in temperature, unnatural nutrient load and seasonal flows, wedges of sediment piling up behind structures, and delta wetlands degraded by lack of fresh water and saltwater intrusion. Rivers are always on the move and their inhabitants know no boundaries; salmon and shad do not read maps, only streams.

The clang of the sledge hammer is one of the oldest sounds known to man. Yet now, at the end of the twentieth century, we are using it to ring in an entirely new era of conservation history, moving beyond preservation or protection towards a deeper, more complex movement, the affirmative act of restoration.

Restoration grows out of the same stewardship impulse as preservation, but pushes beyond, as one might renovate an old, neglected farm to inhabit once again. Perhaps Aldo

Leopold pointed the way with his sand county shack. Yet he was only one man, and his focus was more on land than the nearby river. The coming age of restoration requires the

active involvement of the citizens who live on the entire watershed. Most of all it requires a creative act; we must see not only what is, but envision what can be. It requires us to reach back into our history in order to grasp the future in which we might live.

Restoration invites us to understand how the natural world -- with its complex storms, fires, forests, watersheds and wildlife -- functions as a whole. And the best unit to measure that whole, how it is more than the sum of its parts, is the river that runs through us. For that river reflects the condition of every single acre of the whole, integrated watershed. Thirty six centuries ago, Emperor Yu of China advised "To protect your rivers, protect your mountains." That same rule applies today. To restore our aquatic ecosystems, look beyond the water's edge out onto the land that borders it. For the two are inseparable. What happens on that land inevitably is reflected in our rivers.

But even protecting mountains, we discover, goes only so far. I doubt that Emperor Yu, for all his wisdom, could foresee the construction of Three Gorges Dam or what it

would do to the life of that river. And lest we condemn China too quickly, I should point out that we in America have been slow to recognize the ecological costs of dams. And slower still to envision watershed restoration through dam removal.

I began to reflect on these issues over the course of many days and nights spent in the Grand Canyon over the last half century. I hiked and boated and camped beside the

Colorado River before Glen Canyon was built in the 1960s. In those years it was a wild, unpredictable, brown, sediment-laden stream flooding into the early summer, then settling down in the winter. The gates of Glen Canyon were closed in 1963. Today, you see an ice cold, Jell-O-green river, manipulated up and down, rising and falling on a daily cycle, flushed with the regularity, and predictability, of a giant toilet.

Over time, as I floated down the river, I saw trees on talus slopes wither and die for lack of water. I saw sandbars -- once covered with arrow, willow and cottonwood -- disappear, the banks scoured down to granite boulders. I saw once plentiful native fish -- unlike those anywhere on earth -- driven back to the brink of survival in only a few isolated tributaries.

It may seem hard to comprehend now that, at the time, no one even considered the possibility of these dramatic changes in a National Park located just ten miles downstream. At the time Glen Canyon was built, we were still thinking of dams as stand alone projects that, lamentably, flooded out nice scenery upstream. But without consequences for the entire river system. And the Grand Canyon is only one of thousands of examples.

Nowhere has the impact of dams been more visible than on aquatic life. We once believed that freshwater flowing to the sea was "wasted." By trying to hold it back as long as possible, we blocked out anadromous fisheries from their ancient spawning grounds. In the 19th century, from Maine to the Chesapeake on down to Florida, in the course of

damming rivers, we virtually destroyed the rich Atlantic salmon, shad, striped bass, herring and sturgeon as they made their way inland from the Atlantic.

And in this century, with our massive projects up and down the Pacific-bound rivers, we have repeated this process of destruction, virtually decimating the great salmon and

steelhead runs of the northwest, by continuing to build dams clear up into the 1970s. This year, we learn that roughly one third of all fish, two thirds of all crayfish, and three quarters of the bivalve freshwater mussels in America are rare or threatened with extinction.

Let's give the economists their due: We seem to value something only when it becomes rare. The loss of fisheries that we once took for granted has led to a new urgency

demanding ways we can replenish them. Every single dam to which I brought my sledgehammer was removed for the benefit of one or more endangered aquatic species. Yet despite this progress there are still -- if we use established figures -- 74,993 dams in America, blocking 600,000 miles of what had once been free flowing rivers. That's about 17 percent of all rivers in the nation. If one wanted to unleash every one of those rivers -- I clearly don't advocate as policy -- and restore those watersheds, it would take a lot more than one person swinging a sledgehammer every few months.

But as we contemplate future ceremonies involving dams, here are some considerations:

1. Dams are not America's answer to the pyramids of Egypt. We did not build them for religious purposes and they do not consecrate our values (even if some are named after Presidents). Dams do, in fact, outlive their function. When they do, some should go. There is a dam in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, spanning the Blackstone River. It powered the first mechanical mill in America, birthplace of our Industrial Revolution. Today, even as we move centuries beyond the water powered mills, we have chosen to preserve that dam as a historic marker of where we once were as a nation. As such, it is the exception that proves this rule.

2. There also comes a point in the life of a dam where we can get the same benefits in other ways. On Butte Creek, the Sacramento River tributary, irrigation farmers could replace McPherrin Dam and three others with an irrigation pump and siphon. Quaker Neck Dam, which stored water for power generators, could be replaced with a different cooling system.

3. Moreover, in some cases the price for the benefits is simply too high; the dam has grown too expensive relative to the loss of fish. On the Kennebec River, the age, location (close to the river's mouth), huge environmental costs and low generation at Edwards made it a relatively easy call, for removal. Owners of dams coming out on the Menominee found that taking a holistic approach to the entire watershed would save them time, money and energy. Some could be phased out, while others reoperated with screens, fish passage and drawdowns.

But all these conditions rest on the values and the scientific understanding of the larger community. Who, besides nature, decides whether a dam stands or falls?

One recent column made a reference to "Babbitt, the nation's dam-remover-in-chief" as if I were some Roman emperor giving thumbs up or down. The truth is I have not brought my sledgehammer to a single dam that was not approved for removal by consensus of the inhabitants of the watershed. Each community made a thoughtful, deliberative choice in how they could restore their river, whether as part of a downtown restoration -- as Medford, Oregon and Augusta, Maine -- or to open miles of spawning in rural areas, from North Carolina to California. Many of these consensus based decisions are brought about by democratic, voluntary watershed councils that are cropping up all over the country.

Larger dams pose more complex issues, for there are more, and bigger, economic stakeholders. Entire industries, the price of electricity for millions of people, water storage for cities. We are rapidly reaching a consensus with Congress to remove the dams at Elwha and Glines Canyon. The debate over four dams on the Snake River will surely continue for years, beyond my time in this office. Yet even when a community decides that a dam should remain, it may discover progressive new ways to operate it that restore some of the ecological damage. That explains the public interest in the artificial flood that we released at Glen Canyon to restore Colorado River beaches downstream in the Grand Canyon.

So what can you do as citizens and scientists to shape this restoration movement? What you can do as ecologists is research and examine and document the benefits that might be accrued by restoration of the aquatic ecosystem by removal or reoperation of a given dam in the watershed you may be involved in. We have plenty of powerful stakeholders willing to reassert the known, traditional benefits of dams -- irrigation, hydropower, urban water authorities, engineers. But the process of putting a value on the native life intrinsic to watersheds and ecosystems is something new, and the degree to which you can do so goes a long way.

There is another way of expressing this: My parents generation gloried in the construction of dams across America's rivers. My generation saw how those rivers were changed, deformed, killed by dams. Your generation must help decide if, how and where those dams stand or fall.

I am reminded of Ecclesiastes:
One generation passeth away,
and another generation cometh:
but the earth abideth always....
All the rivers runneth to the sea,
yet the sea is not full;
to the place where the rivers flow,
there they flow again...

A beautiful passage, but now haunting, for it is no longer true due to changes in my lifetime. I think back to my beloved Colorado River, which I hiked and rafted and saw

change before my eyes. Once one of the mightiest rivers in America, it no longer makes it to the sea. That is a shame. As our generation passes, the toughest decisions rest firmly in your hands.

Thank you


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