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COLUMN ONE : Are West’s Dams Set in Stone? : Bruce Babbitt dreams of razing some of them to transform rivers and the Interior Department. But businesses dependent on cheap water and power fear the added expense and predict job losses.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt has a dream.

He wants to stand in the shadow of a massive dam and push a dynamite plunger. The blast would collapse the imposing structure with a thunderous roar. The long-trapped river behind it would flow freely again. And neither the West nor the Interior Department would ever be the same.

It is an ambitious dream--as ambitious as the engineering feats that dammed the arid West and made crops and cities sprout from the desert over the last century.

Like many past Interior secretaries, Babbitt wants to transform the Western United States. But he has something different in mind: He wants to restore, if in small measure, the ecological balance that existed before Interior’s Bureau of Reclamation began its nearly 100 years of dam-building.

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He also wants to transform the Bureau of Reclamation from an empire-builder with little environmental concern into an agency dedicated to preserving and protecting America’s inland waters.

Now that he is Interior secretary, Babbitt could make his dream a reality. He, in fact, has raised the possibility in the department’s 1995 budget.

The first dam Babbitt wants to dismantle is the 210-foot-high Glines Canyon Dam on the Elwha River, which tumbles for 48 miles through Olympic National Park into the Strait of Juan de Fuca. The Elwha Dam, which lies 20 miles down a plunging, spectacular run of the steel-gray river, would be the second to go.

At stake, say Interior Department experts, is the restoration of some of the nation’s most important and most endangered fisheries. Salmon, trout and sturgeon once spawned by the millions in the West’s rivers and streams. And the pristine Elwha River was one of the most fecund--a “fish pump” that spewed hundred-pound salmon into the Pacific Ocean.

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Babbitt said in an interview that removal of dams on the Elwha would illustrate “the search for the highest and best mix of uses” for scarce water in the West.

Before construction of the Elwha Dam in 1913 and the Glines in 1927, the Elwha River was home to six species of salmon. Today, the salmon are at about a fourth of their pre-dam strength, and some, like the sockeye and the pink salmon, are virtually gone because dams have disrupted their migratory routes. The most precipitous decline has come in the last decade.

To the paper mills, aluminum manufacturers, miners and hydroelectric producers of Washington’s Olympic Peninsula, Babbitt’s dream is more like a nightmare. The hydroelectric dams that he wants to demolish produce almost 40% of the electricity used by one of nearby Port Angeles’ two remaining mills, the Daishowa America pulp and paper mill. And Daishowa employs 320 people in a region rich in natural beauty but poor in job opportunities.

To be sure, Babbitt’s dream faces several obstacles, not the least of which is that the dams--like thousands of others across the country--were privately built and are privately owned. But federal licensing and regulation of the dams is in jeopardy because they do not comply with federal environmental standards. And the dams’ owner is trying to negotiate their sale to the government.

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The Interior Department’s 1995 budget includes funds to study the demolition and sale of the dams. But Congress would still have to appropriate the needed funds--an estimated $155 million to $315 million. A battle over allocating the money probably would result.

The proposed destruction of the Glines Canyon and Elwha dams is sending waves of worry beyond the Olympic Peninsula. From the Mississippi River to the Pacific Ocean, farmers, manufacturers, ranchers, miners and loggers have come to count on the dam-building Bureau of Reclamation to provide plentiful water and cheap hydroelectric power regardless of the toll on the environment or the taxpayer. If the Glines Canyon and Elwha dams can be ripped down in the interests of a few salmon, critics ask, where would it stop? And how many jobs in industries long dependent on the dams would be sacrificed?

“The Elwha River issue is such a crucible, such an important precedent-setting test case,” said Marc Reisner, author of “Cadillac Desert,” an account of how the West was dammed. “If we can tear these dams down, it will tell us we have the vision to go back to the future, that we’re serious about environmental restoration, not just about saving a few museum pieces of nature that have managed to evade oblivion.”

To many on the majestic Olympic Peninsula, that is a deeply unsettling idea. Hydroelectric dams--thrown up on virtually all the rivers in this rain-drenched region--have been the lifeblood of industry, keeping energy prices well below half the national average and fueling manufacturing and population growth.

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Many residents already feel threatened by a feared expansion of the spectacular Olympic National Park and besieged by what they see as the insatiable demands of the environmental movement. And those who oppose removal of the dams see in the proposal a federal environmental agenda on the march: To them, destruction of the dams is just the first step in pushing residents off the peninsula and turning it into a sanctuary for vacationing urbanites.

“They take this dam out, then the other one, the next thing’s going to be (dams along) the Columbia River,” said Mark Lomax, a Daishowa employee of 32 years. “Where’s the electricity going to come from if they take the dams out? And the jobs? There’ll be people who want all the dams out.”

Babbitt is quick to observe that the rest of the nation’s dams will not fall like dominoes in the wake of the Elwha and Glines dams. Both dams offer a unique opportunity for river restoration, he said. Alternative sources of electricity are available, and the dams’ owner is willing to sell if the price is right. Since one of the dams and virtually the entire river lie in the protected Olympic National Park, the prospects for the return of fish and the restoration of natural habitat is seen as good.

Babbitt said his proposal to destroy the dams is the most dramatic evidence of his determination to take actions that mitigate, wherever possible, damage done to rivers by reckless human intervention. And some of those actions, he has acknowledged, could be costly.

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In recent months, for instance, Babbitt has proposed changes in the operations of hydroelectric and irrigation dams along the Colorado and North Platte rivers that would prove costly to farmers and electric utilities but improve the environmental health of those rivers and boost recreational opportunities on them as well.

“We didn’t think much about wildlife values and salmon and the environment in the process” of making initial decisions to dam the nation’s rivers, Babbitt said. “We now have to go back and see if we can find the equilibrium that we didn’t talk about” when the dams were built.

Throughout the West, Babbitt’s proposals have sparked debates over water management that have pitted farming and manufacturing interests against a new source of economic growth and prosperity--sportfishermen, rafters and other recreational users of rivers. Those who support dismantling the dams maintain that new industries would spring up, from commercial fisheries to businesses that support recreational river activities.

On the Elwha River, fisheries experts for the Elwha S’Klallam Tribe have estimated that the removal of the dams and the restoration of the Elwha’s disrupted fish habitats eventually would create 482 jobs on the Olympic Peninsula, including 160 full-time commercial fishing jobs.

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Even more lucrative would be the value of salmon to recreational anglers like Dick Goin. According to fisheries experts, a salmon caught by a sportfisherman generates at least three times the revenue to local guides and outfitters as one caught by a commercial harvester.

“I used to have a lot of company on that river in my time,” said Goin, 62, who has fished the Elwha since 1938. “In steelhead season back when it was a very good fishery, I stood at the mouth of the river and I could see 80 people before the river bend. If there are fish, there will be crowds. And they’re all spending money, whether they came from somewhere else or they’re just like me, going out for a few hours to fish.”

If the removal of dams is a distressing prospect to many on the Olympic Peninsula, it is downright revolutionary at the Washington, D.C., headquarters of the Bureau of Reclamation.

For the bureau--historically one of the federal government’s most aggressive public works agencies--dam removal and its twin, environmental restoration, could not be further from its original role.

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Builder of such engineering marvels as the Hoover, Shasta and Grand Coulee dams, the bureau has spent billions of taxpayer dollars to reclaim arid Western lands, harnessing free-flowing rivers for irrigation and hydroelectric power. While slaking the West’s nearly unquenchable thirst for water and electricity, the Bureau’s dam-building has also helped wipe out 90% of the West’s salmon and altered the habitats of countless other species that hover close to extinction.

In all, the bureau has built 254 dams and laid thousands of miles of canals, pipelines and tunnels to divert water from the nation’s rivers. But never has it dismantled a dam, let alone defined environmental restoration as central to its mission.

If Babbitt’s dream is realized, all that could change. And for the Bureau of Reclamation, the change would come in the nick of time.

In the last dozen years, congressional appropriations for reclamation projects have plummeted, closing an era in which dozens of major dams would be in the works at one time. As a result, such jobs as dismantling dams and restoring disrupted habitats could hold the key to the bureau’s political and budgetary future.

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Dan Beard, the reformer who now runs the bureau for the Clinton Administration, does not downplay the significance of Babbitt’s plan. The proposed destruction of the Glines Canyon and Elwha dams, he said in an interview, sends a signal that “to mention this possibility is no longer heresy.”

“Western water policies have been conceived in the interests of mining and agriculture,” Beard said. “And that was fine as long as water was plentiful and the money was plentiful and the claimants on the resources were few.”

But now, he said, the bureau’s principal constituency has changed. City dwellers, with their demands for safe, plentiful water and their taste for wild places to play, “want water left in the river,” and they are becoming the driving force for Western water policy. “And those who controlled the system for years object to the change.”

The current owner of the Elwha and Glines Canyon dams, James River Corp., is the kind of firm whose interests dictated Western water policy for many years. Once the largest of four pulp and paper companies that have dominated the Olympic Peninsula for most of this century, James River employed 46,000 people, including almost 2,900 in Washington state, and had $5.9 billion in sales in the late 1980s. Today, the corporation is largely out of the pulp and paper business on the peninsula.

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Neither the Elwha nor the Glines was built with special passageways for fish, an apparent violation of state law. And yet, the state and federal governments allowed them to operate unchallenged--in effect giving the firm a subsidy worth millions, local environmentalists say. The Daishowa mills that use the dams’ electricity require prodigious quantities of energy.

Ironically, the destruction of the dams would be financially beneficial to James River and Daishowa, because the cost of improvements that would allow the dams to meet environmental requirements would be prohibitive and selling the dams to the federal government would rid the firms of that burden. But local workers and officials are less certain that their jobs and interests would be protected in the deal.

“Absolutely, jobs in the mills will be lost if the dams come out,” said Barbara Mossman, an activist with the local organization that opposes taking down the dams. Beyond rising electricity bills, said Mossman, Port Angeles’ mills would have to contend with Elwha River water that is cloudy with silt and more expensive to purify. The result, she said, would be to drive pulp and paper mills that already are in precarious economic shape out of business.

“The great challenge to the Bureau of Reclamation’s new direction is in the Northwest,” author Reisner said. “You have extractive industries that still rule: timber, agriculture and aluminum, which depend on the lowest power rates in the world. People are clinging desperately to the uneven playing field that has been created and they don’t want to give it up.”

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In the end, such economic considerations are likely to ensure that some of the nation’s largest hydroelectric and irrigation dams--those on the Snake, the Yakima, the Columbia and Colorado rivers--are left standing.

Those, however, represent a small fraction of the estimated 75,000 dams scattered across the country, many of which have been privately constructed but fall largely under federal regulation and licensing. Environmental experts believe that hundreds, and perhaps thousands, of these smaller dams have filled with silt and rubble, becoming useless and sometimes dangerous. Many hundreds more have outlived the purposes for which they were built and their role in sustaining local industries has dwindled.

These are the dams that have provided Babbitt with such a wealth of choices as he has cast about for dams to dismantle. They are also the structures that could keep a trimmed-down Bureau of Reclamation in business for years.


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