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Drying Up the Dams

A tiny group of U.S. senators never saw a dam they didn’t like, even if it happened to be in a national park. Because of this, America’s national parks must go at least another year without an essential bit of protection: a law that would prohibit the construction of new dams in the parks or enlargement of any of the 108 existing dams.

The bill, sponsored by Rep. Richard H. Lehman (D-Sanger), passed the House of Representatives without a dissenting vote in both 1986 and 1987. The city of San Francisco had withdrawn its opposition to the bill, and it seemed certain to win final congressional approval this year. But the bill became bottled up in the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee by critics led by Sens. Malcolm Wallop (R-Wyo.) and Frank H. Murkowski (R-Alaska). The committee is not expected to meet again this year so the bill is dead, said Sen. Wyche Fowler Jr. (D-Ga.), its chief Senate proponent.

Wallop and Murkowski insisted on an amendment that would have exempted dams built on non-federal lands within a park’s boundaries, allowed the enlargement of existing dams and would have given the secretary of the interior authority to allow new dams in any park unit. That was worse than no bill at all.

The Reagan Administration signaled its opposition even though the whole fuss started over San Francisco’s talk several years ago of someday enlarging O’Shaughnessy Dam on the Tuolumne River in Yosemite’s Hetch Hetchy Valley. Interior Secretary Donald P. Hodel caused a big stir a year ago when he suggested not only that the dam not be expanded, but that it should be torn down and the valley restored over time to its natural state.

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There is no reason to build new dams in national parks or national monuments. There is no reason to enlarge any existing dams. The idea of a dam is totally contrary to the concept of the national parks. There were hopes of a last-ditch amendment that would apply merely to O’Shaughnessy Dam. But Lehman and others must keep working until a total prohibition on new dams becomes law.


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