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Return to Previous PageBabbitt looks beyond Elwah dams

Interior secretary says all federal barriers should face review, too

Seattle Post-Intelligencer

All federal dams should undergo the same periodic full-scale review of operations, benefits and environmental impacts that privately owned dams are subject to, Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt said yesterday.

His proposal came as he celebrated a milestone in the drive to remove two privately owned dams from the Elwha River on the Olympic Peninsula.

If these dams were federal projects, there would have been no legal opportunity to review their license, and we wouldn’t be in the process of restoring salmon to this river,” Babbitt said in an interview.

The requirement that privately owned dams be relicensed through the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission was a key vehicle for beginning the process of removing the two aging dams from the Elwha.

Conservationists, sportsmen and Indian tribes argued that the Elwha dams provided few benefits while blocking salmon migration and destroying runs that once totaled hundreds of thousands of fish in one of the Olympic Peninsula’s greatest river systems.

The federal government owns many of the major dams in the West, including six on the Columbia River and four dams on the lower Snake River in Eastern Washington.

Only one federal project, Glen Canyon Dam on the Colorado River in Utah, has been forced to change its operations because of damage it was causing to the river’s shore, sand bars and aquatic life downstream in Grand Canyon National Park.

Any review of federal dams should include “a complete environmental impact statement,” Babbitt said. He said he is not making a formal recommendation but is discussing the idea “after the tremendous success we’ve had on privately owned projects.”

Babbitt was in Olympic National Park yesterday to mark the imminent federal acquisition of the Elwha and Glines Canyon dams. Congress has appropriated money to buy the dams and begin the process of dismantling the Elwha Dam.

Although Sen. Slade Gorton, R-Wash., has argued that there is agreement to remove only one dam, Babbitt said yesterday that “a divide has been crossed” and that both dams are certain to be taken down. He described the process as one of restoring the “biological heart” to Olympic National Park.

The controversial issue of dam removal yielded to good feelings yesterday as Port Angeles officials, leaders of the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe and members of Congress celebrated the fact that salmon will be returning to the river.

“This will be an area where pink salmon spawn en mass. Thousands of pinks will be right in front of us,” Brian Winter, Elwha project coordinator with the National Park Service, told Babbitt and Reps. Norm Dicks and Jay Inslee, both Washington Democrats.

“How long will it take for the salmon runs to restore themselves?” Dicks asked.

“We’ve calculated 30 years,” Winter replied.

Dicks asked how many salmon will return to the river with removal of just the Elwha Dam. “If you just take out the lower one, you just have 30,000 fish,” Winter replied. It would represent an eightfold increase of the river’s current fishery.

But “the biggest bang.” he said would come if the Glines Canyon Dam is taken down. It blocks off 70 miles of the Elwha River and tributary streams from spawning salmon. If all 10 runs came back to pre-dam numbers, nearly 400,000 salmon and steelhead would return to the river over their two- to four year spawning cycles.

“We would like to see both dams come out, one after other,” Frances Charles, vice chair woman of the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe, told Babbitt.

The Elwha dams were built more than 70 years ago without fish ladders. The Glines Canyon Dam sits within Olympic National Park, having been built more than 20 years before President Franklin Roosevelt toured the Olympic Peninsula in 1937 and pressed Congress to create the park.

Kept in a pristine state, the upper Elwha will be “a fully functional salmon watershed” if the Glines Canyon Dam comes down, Olympic National Park Superintendent David Morris said in introducing Babbitt. “We here in the park are thrilled to be part of this grand endeavor,” he added.

The struggle to remove the dams has lasted nearly 20 years. The idea was first advanced in the early 1980s in Bruce Brown’s book “Mountain in the Clouds,” which said the dams were built in violation of a state law requiring fish ladders.

The Elwha tribe has pressed tirelessly to restore the river. The dam’s owner, the Fort James Corp. and Daishowa America Corp. whose mill in Port Angeles receives power from the projects – have worked to find alternative sources of electricity. “Over the years our interests have differed, but today we are together,” David Tamaki, president of Daishowa America, saidnyesterday.

In 1992, Congress passed legislation authorizing removal of the dams. A prime mover was New Jersey’s then-Sen. Bill Bradley, who came out alone to the Olympic Peninsula to inspect the dams and their surrounding environment.

The Interior Department has undergone a radical change in thinking. In 1990, then-Interior Secretary Manuel Lujan was angered when he read a news story in which Maureen Finnerty, then the park superintendent, made the case for restoring the river. But Babbitt has backed river restoration since he took office in 1993.

Babbitt bas presided at ceremonies from Maine to Oregon that have marked the removal of fish-blocking dams. “As we restore this river, we are putting together a model of what can happen across the United States,” he said yesterday.

But a few moments earlier, Port Angeles Mayor Larry Doyle read a letter from Gorton. Its message: Not so fast.

In a jocular warning, Gorton told Babbitt not to “cross the mountains” with his dam removal ideas. Gorton has vowed to block any consideration of removing federal projects from the Columbia River system.

Seattle Post-Intelligencer
Seattle, WA
February 12, 2000

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